The year 2020 certainly was one for the history books and a challenge to everyone.
Kansas Commissioner of Insurance Vicki Schmidt said her office met that challenge head on and adapted to the environment that COVID-19 created in the work place and the insurance industry.
“COVID certainly is isolating and this has been a very different way to work,” Schmidt said. “It’s been almost a year of adaptation...we have adapted pretty well.”
The Insurance Department office relocated from downtown to 1300 Arrowhead Road — near the juncture of Wanamaker and Huntoon in Topeka to share an office with the Securities Commission in November 2019. She said the new location is very consumer friendly.
When the pandemic hit the following March, Schmidt said she moved her 120-plus employees into remote learning, which was quite a trial. After a time, she created two teams — yellow and blue — and tried a rotation of employees back in the office.
“However, as numbers continued to escalate, we have gone to a skeleton staff,” she said. “That was the best thing we could do to keep people safe, but we are still 100 percent open. Our number one goal is to make sure we are still serving Kansans.”
She said they can see consumers in the office by appointment, and noted that mask protocol is observed.
Another big challenge, in addition to transition her office to remote and still provide the same service, was COVID billing for the insurance industry. A year ago, there was not a code for COVID billing or any other directives. They had to create one from scratch.
“It’s been a steep learning curve not only for the insurance industry, but for providers and patients,” she said. “It’s been a roller coaster to get on the same page.”
She said there have been many issues that the Insurance Department’s consumer assistance department has helped Kansans handle, including issues with claims and billing codes pertaining to COVID-19.
The Insurance Department provides a consumer assistance hotline and provides information for consumers who have questions on COVID, testing and vaccines.
Schmidt said no one should receive a bill for a COVID test, unless that test was required as part of a surgical procedure.
There are also many questions about the vaccine, as those have started to roll out — primarily for healthcare workers at this point. The governor has released information on the five phases of delivering the vaccine to the public.
“It’s so new that we haven’t seen any billings yet, but we may see some of the same pain as we did with the testing,” she said.
A positive aspect of the pandemic has been in the way of relief and financial aid for consumers. Schmidt said since the beginning of the pandemic, the insurance industry has seen $90 million in relief that were reflected on insurance premiums — mostly for auto insurance. Consumers were traveling and driving less, so premiums changed to reflect the change.
“That’s a real win for consumers,” she said.
Schmidt said some of the relief went toward medical malpractice and business policies.
Schmidt said the department had improvements in producer (agent) licensing. She said in March and April there was a crisis as testing centers for producer licensing shut down. She noted that some other states offered temporary licenses without fingerprinting or tests.
About 50 percent of the agents in Kansas are also licensed in other states. Schmidt said she didn’t think that option was a good solution, and she wanted people to have trust in their insurance agents.
She said they pushed forward to implement testing amid the pandemic crisis and “set the example,” for other states. Kansas was the first state to have testing centers reopen and as of Dec. 15, online testing became available and improved digital fingerprinting.
Schmidt said insurance was declared an “essential business” by Gov. Laura Kelly, so testing sites also opened to other professions such as nursing.
“We forced the issue and it was included as an option,” Schmidt said.
In addition to a new location, the Insurance Department rolled out new website options for virtual assistance this year as well. Schmidt credits her staff, noting “they were very creative.”
Schmidt, who has been a pharmacist for 40 years, served as a Kansas Senator serving portions of Shawnee and Wabaunsee counties for 14 years. She served on the Public Health and Welfare and Insurance Commission for 12 of those 14 years. When the previous commission made a bid for governor, the Commission of Insurance seat came open, Schmidt ran for election and has been in the position two years now.
She has made some changes in her department, but said she inherited an awesome staff and they go above and beyond to help Kansans. She said if they can’t help — due to issues such as jurisdiction — they find someone who can. During her tenure, the Insurance Department has returned nearly $12 million to consumers and helped them navigate the industry, in addition to issuing more than $1 million in fines to “bad actors” in the industry to persuade them to change how they treat consumers.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes and many we never anticipated,” she said. “This is a very rewarding job. I really love it when we can cut through the red tape and help someone.”
Schmidt said her her staff cannot help due to issues such as jurisdiction, they will find someone who can.
Schmidt said the 2021 Legislative Session got underway last week and she noted that it might look a little different this year.
In addition, the Insurance Department is celebrating 150 years and while she can’t have the big in-person open house she wanted, Schmidt said consumers should look for fun opportunities on social media.
For more information about programs, or questions concerning insurance claims and other issues, contact The consumer assistance division hotline is 1-800-432-2484 and assistance can also be found through the website at ww.insurance.kansas.gov.