Flood advisory issued for most of western Washington

The National Weather Service office in Seattle has issued an urban- and small-stream flood advisory for 14 counties throughout western Washington. Nearly 2 inches of rain has fallen across much of the area in the past 24 hours, with another 1-2 inches expected today.

Affected counties include:


Minor flooding is expected in urban areas and small streams into this evening, according to the NWS. The flood advisory has been extended to 6:30 p.m. today.

Market Conduct Examiner position extended to Nov. 13

Please help us spread the word - We're currently hiring for a Market Conduct Examiner. Sound interesting? This person will work under our Chief Market Conduct Examiner or Lead Examiner Analyst, analyzing, reviewing and identifying the market conduct practices of health insurance companies and other regulated entities that could harm consumers.

This job posting is open until Nov. 13, so if you know someone who may be interested and who's up to the challenge, please tell them soon! See the salary, specific duties and other qualifications.

googleVis 0.3.2 is released: Better integration with knitr

After last week's kerfuffle I hope the roll out of googleVis version 0.3.2 will be smooth. To test the water I release this version into the wild here and if it doesn't get shot down in the next days, then I shall try to upload it to CRAN. I am mindful of the CRAN policy, so please get in touch or add comments below if you find any show stoppers.

So what's new in googleVis 0.3.2?

The default behaviour of the functions print.gvis and plot.gvis can be set via options().

Now this doesn't sound too exciting but it can be tremendously helpful when you write Markdown files for knitr. Here is why:
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The Sky Is Not Falling

A Power of Attorney. The elderly couple wanted to give me a Power of Attorney. They were convinced that President Obama is going to win re-election and that their Medicare coverage is in jeopardy. What happens when(!) he changes Medicare and they don’t get into my office fast enough to be protected?

Can we give you a Power of Attorney to change our policies so that we have the right coverage?

It was Republican Week at my office. I can normally tell whether my clients are Democrats or Republicans just by the questions they ask. The talking heads on FOX create a climate of fear and misinformation on some parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz create a competing sense of dread and foreboding amongst their viewers.

I watch both channels so that I can anticipate my clients’ concerns.

My last post, Collateral Damage, noted the unintended consequences of a badly written piece of legislation. But, the PPACA has helped a lot of people. In the interest of fairness, we should spend a moment or two discussing a few of those victories. All of these examples are from last week. And all involved Republicans. Key details have been changed to protect the identities of all involved.

Bruce has been self-employed for over ten years. He was covered under his spouse’s health policy. When they divorced, he took full advantage of COBRA for the entire thirty-six months. The story then gets murky. Either a bad agent sold him a crappy policy or he cheaped out and purchased something that did not meet his needs. Either way, his health got worse, the mediocre policy didn’t pay for his care, and the premium became unaffordable. Bruce is now an unhealthy 56 year old with no insurance facing possible surgery.

Bruce will qualify for the Ohio High Risk Pool policy. The premium isn’t cheap, $428 per month. It would be far worse if there wasn’t premium support built into the legislation. The Ohio High Risk Pool is not for everyone. Not everyone qualifies. The rules are complicated. But the PPACA is a lifeline for Bruce and he wasn’t the only winner last week.

Jane is another Ohio High Risk Pool winner. She is 61. Jane was terminated by a major local employer last November. She could have been covered through COBRA if she could have afforded it. She couldn’t. She has a number of preexisting conditions that would result in an automatic decline if she applied for individual health insurance. Jane qualifies for the Ohio High Risk Pool policy and the $428 premium may be a challenge, but she has had a year without insurance. $428 is a gift.

The Ohio High Risk Pool plan is not placed through an agent’s office. I have nothing to do with it and I am not compensated for helping people access this insurance. Educating the uninsured is just part of doing the right thing.

Amanda has four sons, two in college, one in middle school, and her youngest is only 8. They are all healthy except for Billy, age 14. Billy is in remission, thank G-d, but he has had hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical care. He might not require additional expensive care. Who knows? I would have had a very hard time covering Billy three years ago. Today? No big deal. Amanda is healthy. The insurers will readily approve her. Billy and his brothers will go through underwriting to determine price, not insurability. The price will be a little higher, but the cost of insurance won’t even begin to reflect the potential cost of care.

The PPACA allows Amanda to purchase affordable health insurance for her entire family. To deny this is to deny reality.

I completely understood why the elderly couple was afraid. All day long they are bombarded with solicitations for different Medicare plans, pleas to support candidates who will fix Medicare, and television reports that the sky is falling. Whatever healthy skepticism they may have once had has been beaten down by the constant repetition of the same facts.

The elderly couple came to my office to be protected. What they need was to be reassured.  



Arraignment for Spokane man who claimed repo-ed truck was stolen

Andrew James Petrie, 28, was arraigned today in Spokane County Superior Court for claiming that his truck had been stolen when in reality it had been repossessed.

He faces one count of first-degree attempted theft and one count of insurance fraud.

In what state am I most likely to hit a deer?

Each year, State Farm compiles a list of deer-vehicle collisions and creates a list of states in which you're most likely to hit a deer.

West Virginia has topped the list for six years in a row, with other particularly dangerous states being virtually all of the northern Midwestern states and the mid-Atlantic states. South Dakota's No. 2, and Iowa's No. 3.

Washington, it turns out, is one of the lowest-risk states, coming in at No. 43 this year. Your odds of hitting a deer in the Evergreen State are a mere 1 in 477, according to State Farm's estimates.

The company estimates that there are about 10,700 collisons with deer in Washington state each year. (Compare that with, say, Pennsylvania's 115,000.)

Oregon is No. 37 on the list, and Idaho's 33.

Arizona, perhaps not surprisingly, is the stae in which you're least likely to run into a deer. Armadillos, however, were not part of the study.

Here's the full list.

Kreidler fines insurer $500,000

Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler is fining Ohio-based BCS Insurance Company $500,000 for issuing hundreds of thousands of policies using unapproved rates and policy language.

“A fair insurance market depends on companies playing by the rules,” said Kreidler. “When an insurer files rates and policy language with us, that’s what we expect them to use.”

BCS Insurance has agreed to pay the fine. An additional $250,000 fine is suspended, provided the company commits no similar violations for two years. The company has also agreed to a two-year plan, including internal audits, to make sure the company is in compliance with Washington state law.

An investigation by Kreidler’s office found that between 2007 and 2009, BCS issued over 500,000 travel insurance policies that were different from the policy language filed with the state. Rates for identical benefits were inconsistent, depending on who the customer was.

googleVis 0.3.0/0.3.1 is released: It's faster!

Version 0.3.0 of the googleVis package for R has been released on CRAN on 20 October 2012. With this version we have been able to speed up the code considerably. The transformation of R data frames into JSON works significantly faster. The execution of the gvisMotionChart function in the World Bank demo is over 35 times faster. Thanks to ideas by Wei Luo and in particular to Sebastian Kranz for providing the code.

Further, the plot function plot.gvis has gained a new argument 'browser'. This argument is passed on to the function browseURL. The 'browser' argument is by default set to the output of getOption("browser") in an interactive session, otherwise to 'false'. This prevents R CMD CHECK trying to open browser windows during the package checking process. Unfortunately this caused an error message under RStudio and RGui on Windows. The argument has been removed again and plot.gvis handles the check if R is running interactively internally. The bug has been fixed in googleVis-0.3.1, not yet available on CRAN, but on our project download page. Thanks to Henrik Bengtsson and Sebastian Kranz for their comments, suggestions and quick response.

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How much of my driving record can an insurer use?

We get this question all the time.

The answer's found in a section of state law called WAC 284-30-500(3). (WAC stands for Washington Administrative Code.) Here's the key section, with some highlighting we added:

(3) It is an unfair practice for any insurer to consider traffic violations or accidents which occurred more than three years in the past, with respect to the acceptance, rejection, cancellation or nonrenewal of any insured under a private passenger automobile insurance policy, unless, because of the individual's violations, accidents or driving record during the three years immediately past, the earlier violations or accidents are significantly relevant to the individual's qualifications for insurance.

So insurers generally cannot use the older data as a basis to reject/cancel/non-renew you, but there is no prohibition against using the older data to assess risk and rate -- meaning set the cost of -- your auto policy.

Even if you have a problem driving record, it's always a good idea to shop around for alternative rates, since insurers don't all charge the same rate for the same level of coverage.

From guts to data driven decision making

Source: Wikipedia, License: CC0
There is a wonderful cartoon by Loriot, a German humorist (1923 - 2011), about a couple sitting at a breakfast table, arguing about how to boil a four-and-a-half minute egg. The answer appears simple, but husband and wife argue about how to measure the time using experience, feelings and expert judgment (wife) or a clock (husband).

The whole sketch is hilarious and is often regarded as a fine observation of miss-communication.

Yet, I think it really points out two different approaches in decision making: You can trust your guts or use data/measurements to support your decision.
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Here come the rains

After an unusually dry early fall, western Washington's long rainy season begins in earnest this weekend, when the first of a series of wet weather systems moves into the Pacific Northwest.

Weather Underground reports that:
A front bringing heavier rain will arrive late Saturday... with significant precipitation continuing Sunday and Monday.

Rainfall amounts during the period from Saturday afternoon through Monday evening will likely be around 3 to 8 inches in the mountains... with the heaviest precipitation over the Olympics and north Cascades. The snow level will be mainly around 10000 feet.

Rainfall over the western Washington lowlands will probably range from 2 to 4 inches along the coast and 1 to 2 inches over the interior lowlands.
Because of the long dry spell, forecasters say, flooding is unlikely. But rivers are expected to rise sharply.

Drivers should also be extra cautious. During dry weather, oil that has dripped off cars and trucks onto roadways doesn't have a chance to be washed away. The rains will spread that oil, making roads extra-slick for the first couple days of rain.

Guilty plea in insurance fraud case over "stolen" bicycles

A Pierce County man pleaded guilty today to two counts of forgery after falsely claiming that two bicycles worth $17,000 were stolen from his garage.

John L. Southerly, of Fox Island, was sentenced in Pierce County Superior Court to 45 days of electronic home monitoring and $800 in fees.

In May 2011, Southerly told his insurance company that two Specialized Epic bicycles and accessories had been stolen. He filed a police report with a Pierce County sheriff's deputy, saying that he'd left his garage door open and discovered that the two bikes, valued at $17,562, were gone.

Southerly told his insurer, Travelers Indemnity Co., that he'd bought both bikes from an Arizona company. When Travelers asked for copies of his receipts, Southerly sent an email that was purportedly from the bike company. The bike company email came from a Gmail account. Attached was an invoice for each bike. Southerly later also filed a sworn statement of proof of loss for the bikes.

Travelers sent an investigator to talk to the bike shop owner and try to verify that the invoices were authentic. No, the owner said, pointing out discrepancies.

Then, last June, Travelers received an email from a different Gmail address.

"This is Detective Harris," it began. "I work out of the Tacoma office. I am trying to follow up on a case that involves Mr. Southerly..."

The email didn't contain contact information for this "Detective Harris," or even specify which law enforcement agency the detective supposedly worked for.

Travelers denied Southerly's claim and turned the case over to the state insurance commissioner's Special Investigations Unit. It quickly determined that there was no "Detective Harris" working for the Pierce County Sheriff's Office, the Tacoma Police Department or the Lakewood Police Department.

With search warrants, the Special Investigations Unit determined that both Gmail accounts listed Southerly's real email as a secondary contact and were sent from Southerly's IP address.

Southerly, who did not show up for a scheduled court appearance earlier this year, was arrested in August while leaving a gym after a workout.

Got an old Medicare supplement plan? You might save money by switching to a newer plan

Consumers who are on Medicare Supplement plans may be able to save money – and possibly increase their coverage – by moving to Medicare Supplement plans that insurance companies issued after June 1, 2010.
As a result of a change in federal law, many Medicare Supplement companies issued new plans that started on that date. Many of the plans issued after that date use the same Medicare Supplement letter as plans issued prior to June 1, 2010. But the coverage often costs less, and is sometimes more comprehensive, than a same-lettered plan issued prior to that date. As a result, in some situations, you might be able to get more for your money by switching plans.
For example: a Plan G issued after June 1, 2010 may cost less and provide more comprehensive coverage than a pre-June 1, 2010 Plan G.
So if you’re on a Med Supp plan that you bought before that date, you might want to check the prices of newer Med Supp plans to see if it would be worthwhile to switch.

Note: Headline -- we'd accidentally typed "Medicaid" rather than "Medicare," has been corrected.

Review: Kölner R Meeting 5 October 2012

The third Cologne R user meeting took place last Friday, 5 October 2012, at the Institute of Sociology.

The evening was sponsored by Revolution Analytics, who provided funding which went towards the Kölner R user group Meetup page. We had a good turn-out with 18 participants showing up and three talks by Dominik Liebl, Jonas Stein and Sarah Westrop.

Photos: Günter Faes
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Why did my health insurance go up so much? Often, it's because you had a birthday.

We often hear from consumers who say that their rate increase was substantially higher than what we approved.

One of Washington's major health insurers, for example, recently increased its premiums for individual plans an average of 13.5 percent. The highest increase among the plans was 21.5 percent. But we subsequently heard from consumers who are seeing rate hikes of 35 percent or more.

What's going on? Birthdays.

If you had a birthday in the past year and your new age ends in a zero or a five (55, 60, etc.), then you can expect a rate increase when your individual health plan renews. This is because you moved into a higher age band. (The insurers group ages together, five years at a time.) Since medical costs tend to increase with age, your premiums tend to jump every time you move to the next five-year band.

And when an age band increase combines with an across-the-board rate increase for everyone who’s on the health plan, you get a sort of double-whammy: the total rate increase can be substantially higher than what our agency approved.

Spokane man charged for claiming repossessed truck was stolen

A Spokane man was charged today with attempted first-degree theft and insurance fraud for claiming that his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck had been stolen, when in reality it had been repossessed. In fact, the man gave the keys to the repo man and was allowed to get his stuff out of the truck before it was towed away.

Andrew James Petrie, 28, is slated for arraignment Oct. 22 in Spokane County Superior Court.

On March 1, 2012, Petrie bought a 2000 Toyota Tacoma pickup from a Spokane car dealer. He paid with a personal check for $8,280. But the check was returned; Petrie's bank account had been closed.

The dealership said it gave Petrie two chances to pay for the truck, then sent a repo man to Petrie's mother's house. Petrie came out of the house, handed over a key to the truck, and was allowed to retrieve his personal items before the truck was towed away.

About three hours later, Petrie called Safeco Insurance and said the vehicle had been stolen from a different home. He said the thief had first broken the truck's back window, trying to take the sound system out. He later said that a construction company's trailer had been attached to the truck, and was also stolen.

A Safeco investigator checked with the dealership, and with the construction company. The insurer denied the claim, and notified our Special Investigations Unit that it suspected fraud. After investigating further, our office asked the state attorney general's office to file charges.

Average annual premiums for health insurance

Was looking through the latest annual Kaiser Family Foundation report on health insurance premiums this morning and came across this chart. Yikes.

These are nationwide averages. The report has a number of other interesting charts and data, summarized here. 

Dental insurance: Where to find it, or how to find free/low-cost care if you can't afford it

We hear from a lot of consumers who want to buy dental insurance on their own, without getting it through an employer. Many companies -- and here's a list -- sell dental insurance directly to Washington state consumers.

When we hear from people who want to buy dental insurance on their own, they often wonder whether there are any particular questions they should ask the insurance company. Here are some suggestions:
• Is your current dentist in the dental plan’s network?
• What benefits does the plan provide? (If you don’t know, ask the company for a copy of the policy. They have to give you a copy if you specifically ask.)
• Does the plan have a waiting period before it will cover pre-existing conditions? If so, how long is the waiting period?
For many people, dental insurance isn’t within their price range. Fortunately, there are a number of low-cost or no-cost dental programs, and the Department of Health has a list of those programs on its website.

Connecting the real world to R with an Arduino

If connecting data to the real world is the next sexy job, then how do I do this? And how do I connect the real world to R?

It can be done as Matt Shottwell showed with his home made ECG and a patched version of R at useR! 2011. However, there are other options as well and here I will use an Arduino. The Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform. It has been around for a number of years and is very popular with hardware hackers. So, I had to have a go at the Arduino as well.

My Arduino starter kit from oomlout

The example I will present here is silly - it doesn't do anything meaningful and yet I believe it shows the core building blocks for future projects: Read an analog signal into the computer via the Arduino, transform it with R through Rserve and display it graphically in real time. The video below demonstrates the final result. As I turn the potentiometer random points are displayed on the screen, with the standard deviation set by the analog output (A0) of the Arduino and fed into the rnorm function in R, while at the same time the LED brightness changes.

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Collateral Damage

It was 1986. A bank opened about ten new locations in the Cleveland area. Somehow or another I ended up as the life insurance agent for many of the branch managers. The bank’s marketing department decided to brand these guys as Financial Planners. I was sitting with one of my clients in his branch, a kiosk inside the Kmart at 260th and Euclid (did I forget to mention that all of these new branches were inside Kmart’s?) and laughed at the idea that he and his peers were Financial Planners.

A Financial Planner is a stock broker with delusions of grandeur or an insurance agent with low self-esteem.

It would be years and years before financial professionals like my partners Jeff Bogart and Kathy Browning would embrace the concept of fee based money management and financial planning would no longer be just another way to sell a policy, a loan, or an annuity.

I bring this up not to laugh at the wide variety of people, qualified or not, who call themselves Financial Planners, but to remind you, dear readers, that in America anyone can claim to be an expert on anything. And in this age of disinformation overload, your email inbox and Facebook news feed are a constant source of rumor, innuendo, and out right lies.

The health care debate is a prime example.

This blog has consistently contended that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is a poorly written law that fails to address our biggest problem, the cost of care. Badly written laws lead to poorly crafted regulations which are a disaster in execution. The unintended consequences are the people who fall through the cracks, in essence, the collateral damage. Today’s post is about a couple of these casualties.

But it is important to note that the way to solve the inherent problems of the PPACA isn’t to scrap it (which isn’t going to happen) but to amend it. If you got lost on the way to Cedar Point would you turn the car around and take your kids back home, or would you stop, get directions, and get on the correct road? We need to correct our path. We need to amend the bill.

The politicians and functionaries that created and backed the PPACA either have a different, unstated agenda or are just lost. Twice in the last few months I have had to deal with the consequences of a health care bill that ignores health care and costs and instead focuses on insurance reconstruction. They are my examples of collateral damage.

The new law made insurance coverage on children guaranteed issue. We can’t deny any child coverage regardless of his/her preexisting conditions. So if we are taking the parents, we have to take the kids. That part is fine, but the other part, the part that was easily predicted by anyone who understands the process, was that the legislation eliminated “Children, only” policies. That is a huge problem.

Some employers don’t choose to pay for the health insurance coverage of dependents. I was able to save families, usually lower income or middle class, a lot of money by writing policies that covered just the kids. If there was an unhealthy child, he/she would stay on the parent’s coverage. That, however, is a discussion of choice and savings. What if there isn’t a choice?

What happens if someone is a single parent? What if that individual is severely ill or injured and after a year plus of treatment is granted Medicare? Who covers the kids? The quick answer – NO ONE. There isn’t a regularly priced major medical policy in the marketplace for a couple of healthy children. After considerable time and research I was able to find a short term catastrophic major medical policy. I have used this option twice in the last few months and shared the information with my peers.

The new Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) regulations kicked in last week. We are just learning how this will impact employer based health insurance policies. We know that this regulation will help people find out what is and isn’t covered under their health insurance policies. We also know that it will prevent employers from changing policies quickly if their business environment forces them to cut costs. That second point is significant. Restructuring benefits, with the same insurer or with a different company, is how many of my clients were able to retain employee benefits during this last recession. What do we do now? No one knows.

The PPACA is a classic example of the blind leading the visually impaired. The experts in Washington, like many so-called Financial Planners, are self-anointed. Without a clear understanding of how their goals impact the average American’s realities, we have laws that may be well-intentioned, but have real, negative consequences for lots of us.
And do you know what we call those Americans, the ones who suffer from the mistakes of others? Collateral Damage. 



I ride a motorcycle. Do I need insurance?

Motorcyles and mopeds are exempted from Washington mandatory vehicle insurance law, so no, there is no law requiring you to have coverage.

But here's why you may very well want to get it anyway: You are still liable from the state's financial responsibility law. Meaning that if you hit something/someone and it's your fault, it's your responsibility to pay for the damage. And since even a minor scrape or ding to another vehicle can cost hundreds of dollars to fix, state officials believe that many motorcycle owners in Washington voluntarily choose to carry coverage.

Also, if you financed your bike with a loan, your lender will almost certainly require coverage so the lender doesn't lose its money if the bike is wrecked/stolen/vandalized/etc.