How Technological Advances Possibly Affect Automobile Insurance Policy Holders in New Jersey
In the 1970’s, “no-fault” insurance laws were enacted in New Jersey and several other states in response to criticism regarding the time-consuming and costly process of determining who was at-fault when an accident occurred.
No fault insurance laws sought to streamline the claims process. One key feature allowed insurers to pay for medical treatment of their injured policyholders. This allowed for timely treatment and provider payment. NJ automobile insurance policies offered up to $250,000 in coverage for medical treatment. Recent changes in law now allow insureds to choose less coverage for medical treatment.
Further, recent technological advances change the way insurance customers choose coverage online. While customers are served by the ease, flexibility, and pricing of policies through internet platforms, some adverse consequences naturally flow. In this article, we discuss the changes, the consequences and subsequent response from participants and 3rd parties to address these outcomes.
In the 1960’s, many more vehicles were entering into American roadways than in previous decades. Baby boomers were coming of age and more cars were sold than ever before. A natural consequence was automobile accidents and as a result, the necessary adjudication of which party caused the collision.
Insured and insurers alike expressed criticism of the process which consisted of petitioning the civil court system to resolve disputes. In response, state legislatures adopted laws designed to streamline the process, and the 1970’s, many states adopted policies allowing injured accident victims to recover damages from their own auto insurance policies.
Almost half of the United States now have similar laws where policyholders are entitled to “benefits” from their own policies. This of course means insurers are on the hook for more compensation, a fact they obviously utilized to lobby legislatures to place certain restrictions on the right to sue for damages not only against the insurer but against the tortfeasor as well.
One of the “trade-offs” made by the legislation was injured parties giving up some of their rights to sue under certain circumstances.
New Jersey No-Fault Law and Application
New Jersey’s no-fault laws have been amended throughout the years. One of the most profound changes to the law occurred in 1998 with the passage of the Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act (“AICRA”). This change in law gave NJ residents the opportunity to purchase a standard or basic policy.
The standard policy is much like a typical no-fault policy containing Personal Injury Protection (PIP) which pays for medical treatment (more on this in a moment); liability coverage for injury or property damage to another; and uninsured/underinsured coverage which kicks in if the at-fault driver has no or insufficient coverage.
A basic policy provides minimum coverage in certain areas such as personal liability, property damages, and medical benefits. Because having automobile insurance is mandatory, the purpose of the basic policy was essentially to afford an option to those who simply wanted to follow State mandates.
With regard to the right to sue restrictions, a New Jersey insured was and still is offered a choice – give up the right to sue for “non-permanent” injuries (those with no objective medical evidence of permanency) and have the premium reflect a savings or retain the right to sue (zero threshold) and pay a much higher premium to offset the cost. Further, one of the things insurers had to trade was that victims would have $250,000 worth of PIP coverage to pay for medical expenses.
Changes to NJ No-Fault Insurance and Consequences
The AICRA changes have been in effect for years. Since that time, the internet altered the manner in which policyholders interact with insurers when choosing coverages.
The internet streamlines the sales process for many businesses. Insurance is no different. What is troubling about this streamlining is the lack of guidance users receive from insurance companies regarding their choice of coverage.
For example, one website asks you to choose between:
It is not so much that the choices are misleading – they aren’t. However, other than these descriptions, there is little explanation of their consequences. If you choose the “more affordable” option, you’re led to a screen that explains the coverages in more detail.
Do people read all the information?
Can they understand the language even if they do decide to read it?
Could it be that the ease of picking the cheapest option is too much to overcome?
Consider this description from a law firm in Maryland:
“PIP is easy to overlook, especially in this age of online insurance applications. It's one box out of 200 that you can check. The application will say something like, "Waive PIP and save $57." The applicant clicks and saves 57 bucks…when in reality, they've lost $2,500 if they get in an auto accident. Too many Maryland policyholders waive their PIP coverage. It's really a good coverage not to waive. “
Likewise, in New Jersey’s Standard Coverage Selection Form, used by insurance companies as a questionnaire to draft a proposed policy, the PIP limits selection form actually lists the savings from choosing lower limit PIP coverage. Remarkably, no such comparison exists on the Form for reductions in Bodily Injury/Liability limits.
In the old days, an insurance agent was tasked to explain various coverages. A real human being who would answer questions depicting real word scenarios involving accidents. This obviously allowed for more informed choices.
Now, a great deal of selling is done online. Many cost-aware customers might respond only to a difference in price. Many can and do simply choose the cheaper alternative. This could cause problems later if an accident occurs and a claim is made.
A Potential Problem with Minimal Coverages
Consider a situation where the insured has the minimum coverages for PIP - $15,000. The insured sustains a back injury and begins treatment. The Emergency Room visit totals $6,000 complete with 3 level CT scans which reveal problems with the upper and lower back. The insured then follows up with an orthopedic who requests MRI scans on the back which equal another $2,500. Add in some physical therapy and the $15,000 PIP limits are exhausted in a couple of months.
None of this is a problem if the scans fail to reveal a major issue. A soft tissue injury is serviceable under this scenario in that the insured gets treatment and is on the way to recovery. If the scans reveal problems, such as multiple herniated discs and impingement on the spinal cord, treatment options become a tricky proposition.
The treatment is tricky because the benefits are gone. Now the injured party must seek other options – some of these can be costly.
Responding to the Need
In response to the above, providers, lawyers and other market participants stepped in to serve the need for accident victims to secure medical treatment. The following are some of those alternative payment methods.
Letters of Protection
Letters of protection (LOP’s) are agreements between the injured party’s attorney and a medical provider that the medical bills will be “protected” by the proceeds of any settlement received. In return for the attorney’s promise to honor the lien against file, medical providers will perform a variety of treatments to the plaintiff, including surgery. Surgery is often a deciding factor in the plaintiff's ability to secure the treatment because normally, the case’s settlement value is increased after the procedure.
Use Existing Health Insurance to Pay Bills After PIP is Exhausted
In some instances, plaintiffs can use their own health insurance to pay for accident medical bills. In NJ, insureds can choose which coverage is primary. However, some health insurance policies exclude coverage for car accidents. The standard health insurance limitations apply as well. These include the need to pay deductibles, co-payments and sometimes co-insurance. Further, there may be limits on the choice of medical provider. Some policies require doctors to be “in network”.
In many cases, litigation funding is used to pay for much-needed medical treatment. Originally utilized to bridge the gap between accidents and settlement, litigation funding sought to alleviate the need for plaintiffs to accept low-ball settlement offers simply because they were struggling financially. Because lawsuit funding is the sale of a portion of the future proceeds of a personal injury case, they are sometimes used to pay for surgical or other procedures when there is no coverage available.
Technological Advances and Practical Trade-offs
Technology has certainly made life more convenient over the years. Conveniences exist today that weren’t in our collective consciousness 20 years ago. Consider being able to speak via video conference to someone on the other side of the world for FREE, when the toll charges for an overseas telephone call were many dollars only a short time ago.
But technology can cut both ways. The ease with which insurance consumers can pick coverages that may or may not be in their best interest may be one such trade-off. Thankfully, market participants (doctors, lawyers, litigation finance companies) step in and address the outcomes which naturally arise. Free markets usually perform this function admirably.