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Rep. Amabile: Filing a wildfire insurance claim shouldn’t be another trauma

Mar 23, 2022

The following op-ed was published in The Colorado Sun.

Many Coloradans who lost their homes and all of their personal belongings in fire disasters are living another nightmare as they seek reimbursement from their homeowner’s insurance policies.

Most of these folks chose policies based on what their mortgage holder required and insurance agent recommended. They paid their premiums in good faith, some for decades. But many have found the claims process to be an unanticipated and onerous ordeal.

We started to hear from constituents after the fires of 2020.

One Grand County resident lost her home in the Cameron Peak fire. She had been paying premiums to her insurance company for nearly 35 years. Her personal property was insured for $161,000. Under current law, the insurance company would pay out an automatic 30%, but to get more she would have to complete a contents inventory.

So she did. She and her husband, both in their late 60s, worked diligently to remember all of their worldly possessions. They placed a value on each item, recalled when they bought it and who they bought it from, searched for receipts, and declared what condition each item was in.

As required, they used the insurance company’s software system to document all of this. Every day for the last year, they have entered items and answered all of these questions.

The insurance company contacted them recently to say that the items had been entered into its system incorrectly. They would need to start over.

This couple is agonizing over whether to just walk away with 30% or keep fighting for the full value of their policy. Right now, they feel they just can’t fight anymore.

We have heard many variations of this story, with seniors and other vulnerable people struggling the most. It’s heartbreaking. Even people who hire attorneys to negotiate on their behalf feel they are on the losing end of what should be a straightforward business transaction.

Not all insurance companies operate the same and not all experiences of wildfire victims have been so disturbingly unfair. But based on the stories we’ve heard and the complaints registered with the Commissioner of Insurance, too many are still agonizing over insurance settlements.

Although many homeowners may actually have been underuninsured, the process of claims adjustment should be easier for victims of these horrible events.

In Grand County, where the East Troublesome fire took 366 homes more than a year ago, many people still have not been paid by their insurance companies. Many of those who have received payments feel they are much too low; not even close to covering what was lost.

People are tired, traumatized, and giving up. It’s unfair to the victims and doesn’t speak well for the laws and regulations of our state that support wildfire disaster victims. Unfortunately, we can expect repeats of those horrific events.

That’s why we’ve introduced a measure, House Bill 1111, in this year’s General Assembly to address insurance claims in a declared wildfire disaster. The bill requires that insurance companies automatically pay out a higher percentage of the contents coverage residents have insured in their policies without requiring an inventory. From there, claimants can pursue the full amount with an inventory.

An analysis by Colorado’s Division of Insurance showed that between 2015 and 2020, the 10 largest insurance companies in the state paid between 37% and 100% of the contents coverage provided for in homeowner insurance policies, averaging 65% across those 10 companies. Two companies paid below 40%. A standard higher payout percentage will move all of the companies to more fair adjustment processes.

The bill provides other common-sense protections for people who have experienced a declared wildfire disaster. It gives people the option to use all available policy benefits to replace their homes by rebuilding or by buying in another location. It extends the time people have to rebuild, and the time people can collect additional living expenses. This is critical when the rebuilding process backs up.

The House has passed the bill, but it still has a long way to go. We are going to work hard to see it through to the Governor’s desk.

Unfortunately, the bill comes too late for Marshall fire victims who collectively lost nearly 1,100 homes in Boulder County. But it will help the Coloradans who most certainly have a major fire disaster in their future.

Judy Amabile, of Boulder, represents House District 13, Steve Fenberg, of Boulder, represents Senate District 18, and Bob Rankin, of Carbondale, represents Senate District 8 in the Colorado General Assembly.

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