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Amid anger over rate hikes, a push for explanations

Jay Bullens Jr. of Able Roofing climbed a ladder to knock snow and ice off the roof of a Brookline home this past winter.LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF/File

Mounting anger from consumers and lawmakers about big post-winter increases in home insurance premiums has forced the Massachusetts Division of Insurance to open the usually closed process of raising rates to the public.

For the first time, the division will hold an informational hearing and listening sessions to explain how it approves rates. But customers want legal proceedings that require companies to present evidence that the rate hike is justified.

“These rate increases were excessive,” said Paula Aschettino of Eastham, chairwoman of Citizens for Homeowners Insurance Reform. “These are things that need to be overseen . . . in a better way.”


The state Senate, meanwhile, has launched its own inquiry on why regulators let some of the largest insurance companies in Massachusetts raise rates by about 9 percent overall, far more than usual.

And Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is reviewing the rate increases to determine if they were justified.

“Homeowners deserve to know why their rates went up so significantly this year, ” said Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Healey.

Insurance companies said they needed higher premiums to recoup losses after paying significant amounts in claims after this year’s record snowfall and previous storms, including tornadoes that hit Central and Western Massachusetts in 2012 and the early snowstorm in October 2011.

State insurance regulators said they did their job reviewing rate requests, making sure they were not excessive, inadequate, unreasonable, or discriminatory. They have reviewed nearly 40 rate filings so far this year and have approved increases in 13 cases, a spokesman said.

One of them was the state’s largest home insurer, Mapfre USA Corp., formerly known as Commerce Insurance, which in August started raising rates on its 214,000 Massachusetts customers by an average of 8.9 percent, after boosting them 2.3 percent the year before.

Aschettino, of Citizens for Homeowners Insurance Reform, said she is a Mapfre policyholder and that premiums on her Colonial home have climbed more than 17 percent in three years. When they renew this month, Aschettino and her husband, Michael, expect their premium to rise 5 percent, to $3,184 from $3,035.


Homeowner Michael Aschettino outside his house in Eastham.Julia Cumes for the Boston Globe

Aschettino said most of the insurance companies in Massachusetts have experienced low losses over the years, and she does not believe they need to boost rates. Mapfre did not return calls seeking comment.

Pete Fullerton, a spokesman for the Division of Insurance, said it plans to hold up to six informal “listening sessions” statewide and an informational hearing, at which insurance companies, consumers, and representatives from Healey’s office can make comments. The schedule for these meetings has not been finalized, Fullerton said, but they would be a first for the division on home insurance rates, which are usually handled internally and approved without public input.

It is unclear if the Division of Insurance would reverse its decisions on any increases after these sessions. Homeowners insurance has long been a deregulated market in Massachusetts, operating under the assumption that if consumers are not happy with their premiums, they can take their business to a competitor.

“We don’t know what will come of the sessions,” Fullerton said. “It’s a way for us to get out there and listen to consumers.”

The 110.6 inches of snow that blanketed the region this year caused ice dams, cracked roofs, and soaked interior walls. Insurance companies and agents said they received an unprecedented number of calls from homeowners and were still dealing with claims during the summer.


The winter’s storms cost insurance companies $1.8 billion, with most of the claims coming from New England, according to industry estimates.

For every $1 in premiums that Mapfre collected for the first half of this year, it spent 74 cents on claims, compared with 62 cents for the same period in 2014, according to its state financial filings.

Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Co., the eighth-largest home insurer in the state, spent $1.16 on claims for every $1 it collected, up from 41 cents during the same time last year.

Both Mapfre and Quincy Mutual were profitable in the past two years, according to state filings. Commerce made $88 million in 2013 and $64 million in 2014, while Quincy Mutual earned $50 million in 2013 and $77 million the following year, according to state filings.

Boston-based Safety Insurance Co. estimated the damage from snow and ice dams cost it $82 million, compared with $20 million in 2011, according to documents filed with the Division of Insurance.

The insurer, which covers 150,000 homeowners in Massachusetts, expects to raise rates by an average of 9.1 percent, starting in December.

John P. Murphy, executive director of the Massachusetts Insurance Federation, the industry’s lobbying group, said formal public hearings for homeowners insurance are unnecessary.

Insurance companies base their requests for rate increases on complex actuarial data and formulas based on past experience and future predictions of losses that the Division of Insurance is best equipped to analyze, Murphy said.


“They rigorously review them,” he said. “I don’t understand what a hearing would add.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.