A senator responsible for overseeing the insurance industry spoke out Friday about State Farm, Farmers, and other major insurers funding police and prosecutors to investigate fraud — creating a system that can ensnare innocent people.
“Insurance companies should not be permitted to abuse their investigations processes,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance, and Investment. “They should not be hiring police to conduct their private investigations, nor should police departments allow themselves to be rented out by insurance companies. This situation is deeply concerning.”
His statement comes a day after BuzzFeed News published an investigation that found major home and auto insurers around the country have co-opted law enforcement to intimidate and prosecute their own customers — tactics that can help companies boost their profits and avoid paying claims. In some cases, the report found, insurers even cover the salaries of dedicated prosecutors, detectives, and investigators whose caseloads consist primarily of fraud referrals from those same companies.
That system has had disastrous consequences for some customers, including several living in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas of Allegheny County, which last year received more than $700,000 in insurance industry grants to fund its insurance fraud prosecutions.
A spokesperson for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office said its efforts to fight fraud are fair, and the industry-funded operation “not only helps to hold people who abuse the system accountable, but also serves as a deterrent to others contemplating similar behavior.”
But Lisa Middleman, a candidate currently running against incumbent Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said the cases highlighted in the article are deeply troubling and underscore the need for reform.
“I wish I could tell you that this injustice is isolated to illegitimate accusations of insurance fraud, but strong-arming people into taking unfair deals is embedded in the culture of the current DA’s office,” said Middleman, who works as a public defender in the county. “The DA has the power and discretion to prevent these abusive tactics and stop the insurance companies from exploiting local residents. Instead, he’s facilitating it.”
The issues are not limited to Pennsylvania. As highlighted by the story, one man was charged with multiple felonies in Indianapolis after State Farm investigators pressured policyholders to falsely accuse him of fraud, then withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the prosecutors. A Georgia woman was left homeless after authorities accused her of arson based largely on evidence provided by her insurer. The evidence proved to be flawed.
An official from the industry group the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud said insurance fraud is a real problem, but acknowledged that “insurers that hurt innocent consumers should be punished severely.”