Hurricane Imminent roared towards the New Jersey coast, its 120 mile-per-hour winds devastating the homes along the 80 miles of barrier islands. The Category 3 storm left a million homeless and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. During the height of tourist season, the Jersey Shore from Cape May north was largely destroyed.
Fortunately for residents, the hurricane was contained within state police headquarters. While meteorologists are predicting weather conditions that could lead to at least two hurricanes affecting New Jersey this season, Hurricane Imminent was a simulation, conducted June 19th of this year to test the state's level of preparedness. Governor Jon M. Corzine and state department officials participated in the simulation to gauge just how prepared they were and just how much further work was required to get the coastal areas of the state ready for the worst-case scenario. At present, according to the Department of Homeland Security, New Jersey is not one of the states with acceptable plans.
Handling the Worst
In the wake of such potential devastation stands the Department of Banking and Insurance (DBI), the agency that would be charged with overseeing how well the insurers in the state handle claims and reconstruction.
Commissioner Steven M. Goldman participated in the event and said afterward, "We had a cabinet-level test for the state's response to a hurricane. We then talked with the insurers on the recovery process. We need to know where the deficiencies are and what needs to be addressed. We're not perfect, but certainly I think we're in a better state of readiness than Louisiana was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We're far from perfect; we've taken a number of steps to look at this and the table top exercise gives us food for thought on what we need to do."
One possible solution is the bill introduced in the wake of the test by Assemblyman Michael Panter, D-Monmouth, that would create a $20 billion insurance fund specifically for catastrophe relief in New Jersey. If approved, the newly formed private-public catastrophic fund would be supervised by the department.
A Career Change
Goldman comes to the department with a rich and varied background, including a 22-year stint at Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross PC, a law firm in Newark with offices in New York City. Sworn in on January 31st of this year, Goldman was asked by Corzine to oversee the department and continue efforts to make it more relevant to consumers and businesses.
The agency oversees the banking, insurance and real estate industries, and starts with ensuring that the companies operating in the state are solvent and are in compliance with state and federal guidelines for conducting business in New Jersey. Additionally, it aids consumers with problems they may have with determining their banking or insurance needs, and helps solve problems with any firm in the state.
Experts believe that Goldman's appointment will ultimately benefit consumers due in part to his real estate background and knowledge of the lending industry.
"It's an interesting change in career and an interesting challenge given the difference between the private and public sectors," Goldman said in an interview shortly after his appointment. "In the private sector, there is a greater ability to deal with issues and questions in a more direct way. In the public sector there are a multitude of different constituencies on every issue. A multi-dimensional approach is taken to every issue and question. If I were negotiating a transaction on behalf of a client, I had to look at interests of both sides. Here, I have to look at the public's needs, the perception of the press, the legislature, and various interest groups in the industry involved."
Inside the DBI
When he first took office, Goldman found himself overseeing a vast bureaucracy that embraced three distinct disciplines, all of which cried for attention and refurbishment. "The governor and I talked about some of the pending issues on the table, and I agreed they were important to address," Goldman says. "There are a multitude of issues that are our top priorities, including health insurance for the great number of uninsured in New Jersey—especially children. Malpractice insurance in the marketplace needs to be addressed. On the banking side: state charters and the need for parity between federal and state chartered institutions is a top issue. The state's overall efforts towards efficiency remain important for the department as well."
Goldman has publicly testified to his concerns over the loss of state oversight of federally-chartered financial institutions. He says such preemption has exceeded his comfort level, and that he wants to work with legislators to readjust the balance. This will be a top priority for the commissioner once the Legislature completes the annual budget cycle.
Goldman has also made it a point to get the word out about his department, complete with a full schedule of television appearances. Additionally, he has made himself accessible for feedback whenever he ventures out of the office. "Most places I go," he says, "I don't have to reach out to people—they reach out to me. I've been talking to associations at their meetings over the course of the year, and on an individual basis. Each constituency has its own set of issues or problems."
For the consumer, Goldman feels the current efforts towards improving financial literacy are going well. The state began a coordinated effort with Financial Literacy month in January 2005 and at the time introduced the New Jersey Financial Literacy Awareness Network (NJFLAN). The network combines public and private organizations to improve residents' financial literacy, for all ages. Part of the effort includes rewriting materials circulated throughout the public.
Today, Goldman says he sees improvement, although doesn't feel the state is there yet. "It's doing part of the job," he says. "We need to make it work across departmental lines in the government, and establish a better distribution of a wider set of materials. We need to provide access to the materials at all levels from schools to senior citizens' homes and places in between. NJFLAN is seen on the website, but we're not going to stop at that. There's a broader approach we want to take to provide wider education, working with banks, mortgage brokers, and insurance carriers as a group to do our best, so the consumer knows the best way to buy insurance, borrow money, or buy a home."
The DBI's website (www.njdobi.org) is one-stop shopping for consumers. Conveniently organized into consumer, banking, insurance and real estate sections, the website has all the departments' news releases, schedules of events, directories of information and answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). One key feature is the home page featuring consumer alerts. "We take issues of topical interest and prepare the consumer alert process and talk about what they are and I sign off on them," says Goldman.
Recently, the DBI website alerted consumers to Ameriquest's decision to close their branch offices and rely entirely on a web presence—and then provided contact numbers for customers to reach the company. Additionally, many applications and renewals can be performed online to avoid lines and provide convenience.
Consumers can compare home insurance rates, locate auto insurance companies, find a glossary of insurance terms, read tips and guides or order pamphlets. Useful tips can be found such as how to "freeze" one's credit reports.
"We are in the process of upgrading the website across the board," says Goldman. "It's an effective tool to communicate, to answer common questions so people don't have to call."
For those without regular web access, the department also maintains a hotline at (800-446-7467) where a menu of options will direct callers to the appropriate department. "We try to have the various functions of the department be as responsive as we can and want to make it more responsive than we have been to consumer inquiries," Goldman says.
"The thing that is reassuring to the citizens of New Jersey," Goldman adds, "is that there are a number of hard working people who care about what they do, work hard to get the right kind of result, and think long and hard on the public policy side."
For more information on specific questions, you can reach the department at the following specific hotlines:
•For Auto and Homeowner Insurance Shopping: (800)-446-SHOP (7467).
•For Reporting Insurance Fraud: 1-(877)-55FRAUD.
•For Individual Health Coverage Program Information: (800)-838-0935.
•For Small Employer Health Benefits Program Information: (800)-263-5912.
Bob Greenberger is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.