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davejones.JPGAutomobile insurance companies would be banned from using motorists' occupation and education levels in establishing customer premiums under a rule change sought by consumer advocates Wednesday.

Consumer Watchdog formally requested that California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, the auto insurance industry's chief regulator, bar companies from engaging in the practice.

The so-called "affinity groups" -- including lawyers, doctors and college graduates -- are getting special premium benefits from the insurance companies at the expense of others, Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield said from Los Angeles.

"It's middle-income and low-income people, who don't have fancy jobs and didn't get a fancy education, who end up subsidizing the rich folks who get these special breaks," Rosenfield said.

The case pits the state's preeminent consumer groups against one of their staunchest political allies. Consumer Watchdog and Jones have teamed up on a November ballot measure to give insurance commissioners the authority to regulate proposed health insurance rate hikes.

Insurance commissioners already have rate authority over auto, property and casualty insurance based on 1988's Proposition 103 written by Rosenfield. On Wednesday, he said the group's only recourse should Jones refuse to take up its request is to take legal action against his department.

Jones' Department of Insurance issued a statement saying it would consider the petition once it is received. The department noted that in several previous rate applications, Consumer Watchdog agreed to settlements that included affinity groups "and are aware that no group subsidizes any other group."

In December, Jones allowed Allstate Insurance Company to use occupation and education level in establishing auto insurance rates.

"After a public hearing in which Consumer Watchdog was given the opportunity to present its arguments to an administrative law judge, the judge upheld the settlement allowing Allstate to have separate rates for affinity groups and found that the settlement was fundamentally fair, adequate, and reasonable," the insurance department said in its statement.

The agreement called for the company to institute an overall .2 percent rate reduction rather than the originally proposed 6.1 percent rate increase.

Consumer Watchdog then filed a request for reconsideration with Jones' office. The group argued that allowing the affinity groups was unfairly discriminatory and constituted ratings factors that were never adopted by regulation and violate the insurance code.

PHOTO: Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones speaks at a candidates forum at Sac State organized by the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association in 2010. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua



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