CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- A West Virginia Senate committee advanced a bill Monday that would likely increase car insurance premiums for drivers who can least afford it, but also expand liability coverage for the highest-risk drivers.
The bill would raise the minimum amounts of coverage that auto insurers must provide, but the limits in the committee version of the bill are much lower than the bill's sponsors originally sought.
It was the second straight week that the committee on banking and insurance has looked for middle ground to placate the dueling interests of the insurance industry and trial lawyers. Last week the committee postponed a bill, under heavy debate, that would have banned property insurers from not renewing the policies of people who filed a claim for weather damage.
Current law says that all car insurance policies must provide a minimum of $40,000 to cover bodily injuries and $10,000 to cover property damage from a crash. The bill had originally sought to raise those minimums to $100,000 for injuries and $25,000 for property.
The version that emerged from the committee raises the minimums to $50,000 for injuries and $25,000 for property.
Insurance representatives told the committee that the changes would result in higher premiums and more uninsured drivers.
Jill Rice, president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation, said that the changes would cause monthly premiums to increase between $2 and $5. Rice said that the changes were unnecessary because average claims in West Virginia are only $14,000 for injuries and $2,900 for property, well below the current coverage minimums.
Jim Buchanan runs an insurance company for low-income, high-risk drivers, almost all of whom purchase insurance with the minimum amounts of coverage. He said that even small increases in premiums would cause many of his customers to drop their coverage and go without insurance.
"I deal with folks who do not have checking accounts," Buchanan said. "I have sent out bills that increased premiums by a dollar and people called me and complained."
Buchanan said that many of his 5,300 customers drop their insurance when finances become tight around Christmas time, and then pick it back up in February.
Republican Sen. Chris Walters supported the higher coverage minimums because he said they would lead to fewer lawsuits. He said that if people can recoup the costs of an accident strictly through insurance claims, then they won't need to file a lawsuit. Walters was skeptical that the changes would make people drop their car insurance.
"If you're not going to buy insurance, you're not going to buy insurance," Walters said. "You can't force them."
About 11 percent of the drivers in West Virginia are uninsured. Mike Riley, the state insurance commissioner, was hesitant to say whether that number would change, and by how much, with increased coverage minimums.
The West Virginia law setting its minimum coverage was passed in 1979, a fact pointed out by Scott Blass, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice, a group of plaintiffs' lawyers. Blass said that the limits haven't even been adjusted for inflation, much less medical costs, which have increased more than 500 percent since the limits were set.
Blass said that the increases passed in the committee substitute were inadequate.
"Driving is a privilege," Blass said. "If you're going to get out there and drive, you have to have coverage to protect people that you could cause damage to."
Beth White, a spokeswoman for the same organization, echoed that sentiment.
"Look around the Capitol," White said. "How many of those cars could you even buy for $25,000?"
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