NJ Official: State Working to Protect Consumers from Trump Measures

John Reitmeyer | May 1, 2019 | Budget
Department of Banking and Insurance Commissioner Marlene Caride tells lawmakers that state’s efforts have significantly lowered health insurance premium rates in the individual market

Department of Banking and Insurance Commissioner Marlene Caride
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has been responding in various ways to new federal policies that have threatened consumers here, the head of the state agency that regulates New Jersey’s banking, insurance and real-estate industries said in her annual appearance before lawmakers yesterday.

Some of the biggest challenges posed by President Donald Trump’s administration have impacted the healthcare marketplace in New Jersey, and the state has adapted over the past year by establishing a reinsurance program and a state-level individual mandate.

Department of Banking and Insurance Commissioner Marlene Caride told members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee yesterday that those changes have helped generate a significant drop in premium rates in the individual market in New Jersey.

“Without these two laws, carriers indicated that rates would have increased by 12.6 percent,” Caride said.

Other curveballs from the Trump administration have affected the financial industry, including the diminished role of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). That has caused Caride’s agency to lead new consumer-protection efforts at the state level; among these are coordinating meetings with state-level agencies that can play a similar role, she said.

Billions in NJ banks

The commissioner, who appears before lawmakers once a year to outline department initiatives and spending priorities, described a largely vibrant banking and insurance marketplace in New Jersey. State-chartered bank assets were up by about $6 billion as of the end of last year, and the total number of real-estate licenses was up by about 2,000 over the same period, she said. More than 100 companies sell homeowners insurance in New Jersey, and 76 companies offer auto-insurance policies.

“We are proud of the work we are doing and committed to continuing to provide consistent regulation that contributes to an environment in which industry can succeed,” Caride said.

Over the last year, DOBI has been involved in the rollout of the complex new state law that is designed to prevent surprise medical bills. Ten years in the making, the new law went into effect in August; it is aimed at protecting patients, businesses, and others who pay for medical care from high-cost bills associated with emergency or unintentional care from doctors or other providers who are not part of their insurance network. The department will soon be launching a “listening tour” as part of another new law’s implementation, one that relates to health-insurance coverage for mental-health issues, Caride said.

Last year, DOBI led a public-awareness campaign to promote access to healthcare coverage in New Jersey as it faced a scaled-back enrollment period for coverage under the Affordable Care Act as well as slashed advertising and outreach funding from the federal government. Murphy’s administration has turned its attention to working with lawmakers to enact legislation that would ramp up coverage of things like essential health benefits and maternity care, she said.

“While the state has taken significant action to stabilize the health insurance market and to improve access for residents, we know there is more to do,” Caride said.

Consumer protection details

In the area of consumer protection, the department has collected $7.4 million in fines so far in fiscal year 2019 and recovered another $9.4 million for consumers. It is also working more closely with the state divisions of Civil Rights and Consumer Affairs in the wake of the reduced role being played by the CFPB under the Trump administration.

Earlier this year, DOBI also sent out directives to the state’s banking and insurance industries to help New Jersey consumers work through issues caused by the prolonged shutdown of the federal government, Caride said.

One issue that didn’t come up during yesterday’s hearing concerned a major policy goal of Murphy’s — the establishment of a public bank in New Jersey. So far, there have been no big announcements on that score.

Murphy repeatedly promoted the public-bank initiative during the 2017 election, suggesting it could be used by the state to better leverage taxpayer deposits and other resources to meet key policy goals like improving small-business lending or rebuilding infrastructure. Those deposits are currently being held in large commercial banks that profit from New Jersey’s assets.

The public-bank initiative has the backing of public-policy advocates but some are starting to express frustration given that other states have been making more progress while it has been largely on the back burner in New Jersey.

Funded primarily with fees levied on the industries it regulates, the Department of Banking and Insurance has one of the smallest budgets of any of New Jersey’s cabinet-level departments. The DOBI request for funding in FY2020, which begins in July, is $64 million, the same amount as it is receiving in the current fiscal year.