Consumer Protection at Center of State Auditor Race

By Beacon Staff

State Auditor Monica Lindeen acknowledges that many voters aren’t aware that her office regulates the insurance and investment industries, which is part of the reason she would like to see a constitutional amendment to officially change the office’s name to “commissioner of securities and insurance.”

Lindeen, a Democrat elected in 2008, is on the campaign trail touting her record on forcing insurance companies to pay more than $15 million in unpaid insurance claims to Montanans and recovering $200 million in restitution for victims of securities fraud.

By doing so, she is offering a reminder that a primary function of the auditor’s office is to advocate on behalf of Montana consumers when they’re grappling with insurance or investment issues.

“A lot of people don’t know that you call the state auditor if you’re having a problem with your insurance claims,” Lindeen said in a recent interview, adding: “My record over the last four years has been to protect consumers.”

Her challenger, Republican Derek Skees, strikes a similar tone of concern for the consumer, albeit with a more singular focus on one issue: the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” Skees has made clear that he decided to vacate his House District 4 seat to run for auditor explicitly to combat the federal health care act’s influence in Montana.

In an interview last week, Skees said if elected he will do all he can to fight against the law’s implementation, arguing that Lindeen hasn’t done enough to stand up to federal encroachment. He believes the health care law will harm Montanans by reducing competition in the marketplace and driving up insurance costs.

“I’m going to fight it in every possible way,” Skees said. “If we learned anything from the Soviet Union – price control doesn’t work. It increases costs.”

But Lindeen says implementing the Affordable Care Act isn’t an option – it’s the law of the land and she must carry out the law.

Lindeen has been critical of state Republicans for shooting down a bill last legislative session that would have created a state-run exchange, or Internet marketplace, for uninsured Montanans to purchase health insurance. Without the state having an exchange in place, the federal government is stepping in to set up its own system.

Lindeen says she is providing input to the federal government as it establishes the exchange and doing her best to make sure Montanans’ voices are heard during the process.

The Democrat was also critical of Republicans for blocking a bill that would have given the state authority to review health insurance premium rates. Montana is one of three states without that authority, which proponents say would help the state save money for consumers and hold insurers accountable.

If reelected, Lindeen said she will once again ask the Legislature to pass a bill that gives Montana rate-review authority.

“That is literally my No. 1 priority in the next session,” she said, adding that another top priority is clearing the waiting list for Insure Montana, a program designed to make health insurance more affordable for small businesses.

Skees, however, said Republican legislative efforts were necessary to fight against the federal health care law.

“We won a massive battle where we didn’t implement a single thing that Obamacare asked for,” Skees said.

As a state representative during the last session, Skees introduced and supported bills seeking to push back against the federal government, including an unsuccessful measure to nullify the Affordable Care Act. He says as auditor he would work with insurance commissioners in other states in an alliance to reject the law’s implementation.

Skees says he would support bills encouraging “across-state-lines competition” and health care compacts. He believes the state should more freely allow market forces to drive down insurance prices. The less influence the federal government has, he said, the better off Montanans are.

“I have said all along that everything the federal government touches gets more expensive and more stupid over time,” he said.

The Republican also supports tort reform and is an opponent of Montana’s unisex mandate, which prohibits the consideration of gender in establishing insurance rates. He says it’s a “socialist idea.”

“It’s a social engineering solution that was applied to insurance,” he said. “It has nothing to do with what’s good for insurance.”

Skees won a narrow victory in 2010 to claim Whitefish’s House District 4 seat over Democrat Will Hammerquist in his first run for elected office. Lindeen served four terms as a state representative from Huntley before losing to Denny Rehberg in the 2006 race for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce endorsed Lindeen in June, one of only two Democrats the organization supported in statewide races. The chamber cited her record on development as a Land Board member and approach to insurance and securities regulation.

Skees says he is unfazed by Lindeen’s endorsements, as well as her substantial advantage in campaign fundraising. He said he was outspent by a large amount in his 2010 legislative victory.

“I do my best work when the Democrats think they have me totally whooped,” Skees said. “They’re taking me for granted.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.