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Study finds many insurance department Web sites making the grade

Most states are doing a good job using the Internet to provide people with information about insurance, rates, companies, and complaints, according to a consumer watchdog group. In its annual survey of insurance department Web sites, Consumer Federation of America (CFA) found a number of high-quality consumer resources.

More than half of the country lives in 15 states with "excellent Web page information," according to CFA, which released its findings March 23. More than 95 percent of the population lives in states with at least good information (the 15 states receiving "A" ratings and the 25 states earning "B/C" grades). The states with poor or no Web-based insurance department information represent only 5 percent of the nation's population.

The states earning an "F" from CFA were those without Web pages — Washington, D.C., New Mexico, and Rhode Island. Eight states received a "D," or a below-average rating. This is the CFA's third such study.

CFA's Director of Insurance, J. Robert Hunter, the author of the study and former Texas insurance commissioner, warns his group will be tougher on the regulators next year. "We didn't grade exceptionally stringently, given the newness of the technology and the massive amount of change going on at many state Web sites," Hunter says. "But we will develop tighter tests for our next review."

Hunter recommends insurance regulators study Web sites in states receiving an "A" rating. CFA highlights states such as Washington for providing "clear, hard-hitting information for consumers," Oregon and Wisconsin for offering market conduct and financial exams, and New York for using its site to broadcast hearings. CFA also praises Texas for its company profiles that include good complaint and financial information. Missouri draws kudos for releasing information that shows consumers with a bad driving history which auto insurers won't take them.

In determining the grades, CFA officials checked the states' Web pages for availability of brochures, insurance quotes, complaint information, and whether or not people could file complaints online. CFA also took note of how easy or difficult it is to navigate each Web site.

Many state officials are continuing to improve and add information to their online pages. CFA points out some of them provide weak or useless information, or are very slow and difficult to navigate.

Bob Martin, communications manager for National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), says his group is working with states to help them upgrade Web sites. "It is an important way for consumers to access information," Martin says of the Web sites. "I think even the best Web sites can do things to improve access to information."

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