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California orders auto insurers to refund premiums due to coronavirus

The order currently includes March and April, but will likely also include May.

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- 02:20
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California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara has ordered all insurance companies to refund premiums for March and April.

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One of the (admittedly minor) upsides to many people being asked to stay in their homes during the COVID-19 outbreak is that, on the whole, people are driving much less. This means that they're using less gasoline, emitting fewer pollutants and not getting into so many accidents. You'd think that last thing would translate into a drop in the cost of car insurance. You'd be wrong.

Except in California, of course. California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara ordered on Monday that auto insurance companies return the premiums paid for coverage for the months of March and April because of the state's shelter-in-place requirements, and that order might extend to May.

"With Californians driving fewer miles and many businesses closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, consumers need relief from premiums that no longer reflect their present-day risk of accident or loss," Lara said in a statement. "Today's mandatory action will put money back in people's pockets when they need it most."

Many auto insurance companies have come under fire for their lack of action during the COVID-19 crisis, with critics accusing the companies of profiting from this pandemic. As a response, most of the major insurers, including Allstate, Geico and Nationwide, have begun to offer refunds of around 15% to customers. Still, the California order goes much further than that.

"I applaud efforts made by insurance companies to date that have offered grace periods and flexibility to consumers and businesses during this national emergency," Lara added. "We must do more to help our hard-working families and small businesses."

California has ordered insurance companies to report back to the Department of Insurance with a list of all the premium refunds that they've issued or plan to issue within the next two months. This oversight will hopefully spur the insurers into action and ensure compliance with the mandate.

Meanwhile, the auto insurance industry isn't thrilled about Lara's mandate and is instead urging the Insurance Commissioner to reconsider.

"Now is not the time for arbitrary calls for rate decisions. We urge all stakeholders to support flexibility in the marketplace," said David A. Sampson, president and CEO of American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA), in a statement. "California has the most complex regulatory structure in the nation. The Department should be providing guidance to companies that are trying to implement premium reductions within the confines of Proposition 103."

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Update, Apr. 14: Added comment from American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA), a prominent insurance industry lobbying group.