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The state auditor's office brought a common-sense consumer-protection agenda to the 2003 Legislature. While some important consumer protection measures became law, others were defeated by an aggressive and influential insurance lobby. Overall, consumer interests did not fare well in the 2003 legislative session.

The role of this office is to enforce policy set by the Legislature. In addition, we develop policy suggestions for the Legislature that protect consumers while providing the industry with an efficient regulatory environment. With each proposal, we evaluate whether the regulations would be beneficial to consumers and whether they would be burdensome to industry. Many of our proposals were supported by Montana's business leaders, and nearly all received vocal backing from representatives of consumer groups.

Few professional lobbyists represent consumers before the Legislature. In most cases, this office, along with those few consumer groups, speak on behalf of consumer interests while industry frequently has six to 10 lobbyists.

Montanans need to make their legislators understand that they expect representation, that their concerns must be addressed. Some critical consumer proposals were defeated because the consumer voice was not heard above the din of industry. I urge Montanans to contact their legislators and demand representation.

Gone, not forgotten The following measures did not survive the session, but will be at the forefront of our consumer protection agenda in the coming year:

- A bill that would have limited the ways insurance companies can use the credit/financial history of a consumer in underwriting and rating insurance policies.

- Another bill would have required insurance companies and agents to consider the "suitability" of life insurance and annuity products before selling them to people 65 and older.

- The Montana Health Insurance Affordability Act would have provided $82 million a year to address critical health care issues facing Montana. The funds would have been distributed to provide tax credits for individual and small-group coverage, school district health-care coverage, tax credits to assist low-income seniors who lack prescription drug coverage, expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program and continuation of existing programs administered by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. This proposal was supported by more than 40 organizations including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, AARP and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, as well as the AFL-CIO, MEA-MFT, public health groups and health care providers, and yet it never made it out of the House Taxation Committee.

- The Children's Health Insurance Program did not receive additional funding (leaving $35 million in federal matching funds on the table) and 18-year-olds are no longer eligible for the program.

Some important victories We did see some important victories for Montana insurance consumers and small businesses:

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- Insurance companies are now required to pay or deny health care claims within 30 days of proof of loss, unless they make a reasonable request for additional information. A provision to require the same of automobile and homeowner insurers was stripped from the bill, though prompt payment is required for automobile insurance claims under $2,500.

- A new law requires all health insurers to give at least 60 days advance notice to group policyholders and 45 days notice to individual policyholders of a change in rates, terms or benefits.

- An amendment to existing law makes it easier for businesses or individuals to form purchasing pools to obtain health insurance.

- Montana Comprehensive Health Association eligibility requirements were expanded to allow qualifying people to join this high-risk health insurance program when their premiums get too expensive in the traditional market. The Legislature also appropriated $1.36 million to continue a low-income subsidy program over the biennium.

The Montana state auditor's office will continue to stand up for Montana consumers and businesses, but a strong Legislature is indispensable to getting the job done.

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