Insurance commissioner ads trigger more sniping in fiercely contested race

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Associated Press State & Local Wire

SAN FRANCISCO: As they head toward Tuesday’s primary, the three major Democratic candidates for insurance commissioner are running TV ads that are triggering more sniping in one of the fiercely contested statewide races.

In an ad for Assemblyman Tom Calderon that began running widely earlier this week, a woman speaking in sign language, “I’m sick of waiting for someone to take on the HMOs, so I’m voting for Tom Calderon.”

The ad is misleading, according to Calderon’s opponents and consumer critics, because the insurance commissioner has little jurisdiction over the state’s major health maintenance organizations, or HMOs. The state Department of Managed Health Care, created in July 2000, is the HMO industry’s primary regulator.

“It’s a tremendously deceptive claim,” said consumer activist Jamie Court, who has worked on several HMO reform bills in the Assembly.

If he is elected, Calderon intends to push for changes that will give the insurance commissioner more power over billing disputes involving HMOs, said his spokeswoman Valerie Martinez. “It’s an issue important to California and an issue that hasn’t been addressed,” she said.

The Department of Managed Health Care doesn’t agree with Calderon. “The governor created this department to protect patients’ rights and any retreat from that would be bad news for consumers,” said Daniel Zingale, the department’s director.

The ads of Calderon’s chief opponents, former Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and former Assemblyman Tom Umberg, are also drawing criticism.

Garamendi, the front-runner in this year’s race, blasts “one of (his) opponents” for accepting campaign contributions from the insurance industry even though he did the same thing when he ran for governor in 1994. Calderon, the apparent target of Garamendi’s reference, is the only candidate to accept insurance contributions this year.

Although there is no disclaimer in his ad, Garamendi has acknowledged that his campaign workers mistakenly accepted some insurance industry donations. He has returned $20,000 to insurance industry sources.

Calderon has raised $1.53 million from the insurance industry, accounting for 58 percent of the $2.65 million contributed to his campaign, according to an analysis by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a watchdog group.

With his fortunes tied to the insurance industry, Calderon’s regulatory powers will be compromised, according to Garamendi, Umberg and consumer activists. Calderon says the industry contributions won’t his decisions as a regulator.

Umberg’s ads tout a ringing endorsement from Erin Brockovich, a consumer crusader whose legal fight against utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric became the subject of an Academy Award-wining movie. The ad doesn’t mention Brockovich is a registered Republican who can’t vote for Umberg in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“She has proven her credentials as a consumer advocate. That’s all that matters to us,” said Nate Tamarin, an Umberg spokesman.

The scrutiny being paid to the ads underscores the intensifying focus on the insurance commissioner’s race, which will determine who regulates an $86 billion industry in California.

The winner of the Democratic primary will emerge as a heavy favorite to win the general election in November against one of three Republican candidates – attorney Gary Mendoza, insurance agent Wes Bannister and insurance auditor Stefan Stitch.

The ads could play a pivotal role in determining the Democratic winner because 48 percent of probable voters remain undecided, according to a Field Poll released earlier this week. In that poll, Garamendi held the lead with 22 percent of the vote, followed by Calderon at 13 percent and Umberg at 9 percent.


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