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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Reaping the Benefits: Michael Allen, general manager of SEIU's Local 707 office, is looking into Hartford's slow action on claims.

Late to the Gate

County workers face problems with Hartford

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Sherry Smith expected to be getting long-term disability by now. It's been six months since the Sonoma County worker went off work for medical reasons, and yet she still has no answer from the county's insurance carrier, Hartford Insurance, about her claim.

"I've been out of work since Dec. 18, and I've had no income since Feb. 11," she told the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on June 11 while choking back tears. "I have spent thousands of my own money on medical bills, and I don't know what I'll do without income in the next six months."

Smith says that she's done everything that Hartford has required, including sending certified letters regarding her condition, and still she's seen no response to her claim. No one at the company would even return her calls until she threatened to report them to the California Department of Insurance. Even then, no one had an answer on when and if she would start receiving benefits.

Smith was one of several members of the local Service Employees International Union to speak to the board about Hartford Insurance. Ann Delaney, who has worked for the county since 1977, also had trouble with Hartford. Her applications were lost and then misfiled, she says, and her complaints generally ignored. While waiting for her claim to come through, she faced numerous hardships, including the death of her cat, for whom Delaney was unable to afford veterinary care.

The SEIU, which represents Sonoma County government employees, has become increasingly concerned about the Hartford situation, according to Michael Allen, general manager of SEIU's Local 707 office.

"We have a significant number of people who may have to file for bankruptcy or lose their dwellings because of Hartford," he told the board. "The county thought workers were going to receive better benefits through this company, but they haven't."

The speakers asked the board to switch to a new carrier and to impose financial penalties of up to $10,000 against Hartford.

The speakers' complaints were passed on to Marcia Chadbourne, Sonoma County risk manager. She says part of the problem stems from a shorter waiting period--60 days instead of the usual 90 or 180 days that most insurers require people to wait before they receive benefits. Because the time is shorter, workers have less time to provide the many necessary documents Hartford requires, which can cause delays in receiving benefits. But, she says, Hartford also has a problem with timely responses.

"We've evaluated the situation, and the county acknowledges that there are some problems with Hartford," says Chadbourne. "The Joint Labor-Management Committee is going to begin looking for a new carrier."

The board isn't likely to enforce financial penalties, however, because Hartford has met its contractual obligation to make decisions on 80 percent of the claims filed by day 45 of the 60-day waiting period, explains Chadbourne.

Hartford has had similar problems in the past with other customers. In fact, according to Allen, 170 lawsuits were filed against Hartford for similar situations, and the Department of Insurance has cited them. A consumer-oriented website called Fight Bad-faith Insurance Companies (www.badfaithinsurance.org) lists Hartford as the No. 1 bad-faith insurance company, claiming that it has the "highest number of bad-faith-related complaints and lawsuits." Hartford had no comment.

The numbers don't help people like Smith and Delaney, who find themselves in limbo, with no income and no way to work.

"At this point, we are gathering information and seeking legal advice," says SEIU field representative Maria Peluso. "We may look into lawsuits against all the parties involved."

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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