A new sheriff didn’t ride into Mount Airy Monday — instead it was the man now occupying the dual role of state insurance commissioner/fire marshal, who took aim at the growing problem of insurance fraud.
“We’re all paying for insurance fraud,” Mike Causey told a gathering of local fire and elected officials at the city fire station on Rockford Street regarding the higher premiums that result for consumers.
“Insurance fraud is one of the biggest problems we have in this state,” added Causey, the first Republican insurance commissioner in North Carolina history. “Anything from arson to staged accidents — you name it.”
Causey, who was elected to the post last November, paid a visit to a number of Surry County locations Monday. In addition to the Mount Airy Fire Department, his itinerary included the Pilot Knob Volunteer Fire Department at Pilot Mountain, the Dobson Volunteer Fire Department, CC Camp Volunteer Fire Department at Elkin and the Surry County Sheriff’s Office.
It was, in a way, a historic event. Mount Airy Fire Chief Zane Poindexter pointed out that during his 22 years in the fire service field, he could recall no previous visits by a state insurance commissioner/fire marshal to the local area.
Causey met with about 25 people in a classroom at the Rockford Street fire station, who included city fire personnel, local volunteer firefighters, Surry County Fire Marshal Doug Jones and Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe.
And the state official made the most of his meetings Monday with fire and rescue personnel by addressing topics including the need for improved volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention and the dangers of leaving children in hot cars (hyperthermia), along with insurance fraud.
Tackling the problem
The financial toll from insurance fraud, excluding health insurance, is estimated at more than $40 billion per year, according to the FBI. For the average U.S. family, this amounts to between $400 and $700 annually in the form of increased premiums.
Causey said fraud accounts for 10 to more than 20 cents of each dollar spent.
Bringing those who commit insurance fraud to justice has been problematic in North Carolina, according to Causey, who said that when he took office, only 21 sworn officers were on duty to investigate cases.
Out of the nearly 5,000 complaints of possible fraud made annually, the overworked staff was only able to probe about 12 percent.
This prompted the new insurance commissioner/fire marshal to approach the state Legislature about what he joked was an unusual request by a GOP office-holder: asking for an expansion of a program rather than a cut.
Causey’s request for more funding and additional positions was approved by the lawmakers, which translated into 30 new investigators, accountants, attorneys and others to address fraud complaints.
He said that upon taking office, he also found the inspection program in his department lacking, pointing out that this meant some fire departments had not been state-inspected in 20 years. Correcting that became another priority for him, Causey said.
The visiting state official also discussed Monday a key topic related to insurance: auto accidents.
Causey said distracted driving is now the major cost factor in that category, including texting.
“People are speeding more,” he said of another issue, mentioning that even when driving 80 mph on an interstate highway, motorists are likely to be passed by others.
Seat-belt use also is on the decline, according to Causey, while impaired driving is on the increase.
Deaths from heat
Concerning children being left in hot vehicles, the state insurance commissioner/fire marshal mentioned a case in Mooresville earlier this month in which a 3-year-old girl died after being found unresponsive in a family vehicle.
Causey said more public awareness is needed regarding this problem, as evidenced by it being a key topic for his visit to Surry County.
“People don’t realize those vehicles will heat up 30 degrees in 10 to 15 minutes,” he said, and can wind up with an inside temperature of 140 to 160 degrees.
“You know when it’s hot enough to bake s’mores on the dashboard, that’s a hot vehicle,” Causey said of an exercise used to illustrate the temperatures involved.
He said fire personnel and others should not hesitate to call 911 if they see a child in an enclosed vehicle on a hot day.
A major problem facing volunteer fire departments is being able to keep membership ranks at a healthy level to adequately respond to emergencies. In Surry County, three departments routinely are dispatched to fires to ensure sufficient personnel.
Causey said one solution is more aggressive recruitment programs to gain, and retain, young volunteers.
There are promising signs of this in Surry County, Causey said, citing an earlier stopover Monday.
“I was really impressed with Pilot Knob,” he said of that volunteer department. “They have three recruits over there.”
Causey, who has a background in insurance, farming, small business and teaching, first joined the state government payroll several years ago when he became the Adopt-a-Highway coordinator for the N.C. Department of Transportation.
He said the job of insurance commissioner is multi-faceted, covering fire marshal as well as other functions.
“A lot of people don’t know the insurance commissioner is the chief building inspector,” Causey said of another key responsibility within his office.
“It’s not a fun place to be some days with all you have to deal with.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.