Northern Australia insurance consumers need more choice and more control

30 July 2019

A national comparison website for home insurance and greater power for consumers in claims settlements are among measures proposed by the ACCC in its latest Northern Australia Insurance Inquiry report, released today.

The second update report of the inquiry finalises 13 recommendations aimed at boosting price transparency and consumer choice in northern Australia, whose residents pay considerably higher premiums for home, contents and strata insurance.

“Communities across northern Australia have told us of their frustration and, at times, distress, in trying to find suitable and affordable insurance in this market,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said.

“Consumers have been given little visibility into how insurers assess risks, set premiums, or why premiums in this region continue to rise. The opacity and complexity of these markets makes comparing products extremely difficult.”

“Our recommendations aim to give consumers the clear, simple information they need to make these crucial decisions about their insurance cover,” Ms Rickard said.

The ACCC has recommended the Australian Government consider a national home insurance comparison website, to provide consumers with clear information about their choices and to support competition between insurers. Insurance companies would be required to participate in the website.

“While there are commercial comparison sites available, these do not compare products from all providers, and Australia’s four biggest insurers do not participate in these websites at all,” Ms Rickard said.

In addition, consumers should be given the right to choose how their home insurance claim is settled, either through a repair or rebuild managed by the insurer; or through a cash payment (after receiving appropriate warnings about the risks of taking a cash settlement). This right should be legislated through changes to the Insurance Contracts Act.

“Consumers may prefer a cash settlement so they can have more control over which builders are used, as well as the scope and timing of the repairs or rebuilding work,” Ms Rickard said.

“In other cases, insurers may finalise a claim with a cash settlement when a consumer would prefer that the insurer manage the repair work.”

“We believe consumers should have the right to choose how their claims are settled.”

The ACCC has recommended consumers be provided with more useful and clear information about insurance products, for example on the premium costs or savings that will stem from optional inclusions or exclusions.

“Insurers should also provide more guidance to consumers on mitigation measures that have been undertaken on properties with similar characteristics, and a guide to the premium reductions that have resulted from doing so. This will give consumers more reliable and practical information on their options to reduce risks,” Ms Rickard said.

Other recommendations include that the minimum time for consumers to be provided with a renewal notice before a policy expires to be extended from 14 days to 28 days to encourage shopping around, and for measures to help consumers consider the costs of insuring a property before they buy it. The ACCC has also proposed that strata managers be paid only by their body corporates, and not accept payment from insurance brokers or insurance companies when they arrange strata insurance.

The full list of recommendations can be found in the report.

Today’s update report finalises the ACCC’s views on the 13 draft recommendations proposed in the Inquiry’s first interim report, released in December 2018.

The recommendations released today complement the 15 recommendations contained in the Inquiry’s first interim report, such as abolishing stamp duty on insurance products, banning conflicted remuneration for insurance brokers, making products more comparable and applying unfair contract terms protections to insurance products.

“We continue to call on the insurance sector and all levels of government to work together to adopt our recommendations which, if implemented, would make a real difference to insurance customers not only in northern Australia, but around the country,” Ms Rickard said.

Current focus areas

Today’s update report also highlights the Inquiry’s progress on its five focus areas for 2019.

The Inquiry’s main focus for 2019 is to consider policy measures that could have the potential to achieve real and meaningful change for northern Australian communities. The Inquiry is currently considering ideas to improve insurance affordability and availability from Australia and overseas, and whether they could be applied in northern Australia.

The Inquiry’s next interim report will also contain case studies in several sub-regions of northern Australia, including Townsville which was hit by devastating floods in February 2019, Airlie Beach and other areas hit by Cyclone Debbie in 2017, and Cooktown, Port Hedland, Kununurra, Katherine and Alice Springs. More detailed information and data on these areas is being obtained from insurers, including policy level premium and claims data.

In addition, the Inquiry is examining insurers’ use of premium adjustments in northern Australia, and considering what barriers exist to insurers expanding in or re-entering the northern Australian insurance market.

In recent weeks, a new entrant has entered north Queensland insurance markets. The ACCC welcomes this development as it will provide consumers in these areas with another option for insuring their home and contents.

“There are a number of insurers that largely exclude northern Australia. Investigating the barriers these insurers face in expanding or re-entering northern Australian insurance markets is a focus for the inquiry in 2019,” Ms Rickard said.

Another important focus area is understanding the extent and reasons for non-insurance throughout northern Australia.

Background

In July 2017, the ACCC commenced an inquiry into the supply of residential, contents and strata insurance in northern Australia, following direction from the Australian Government.

The ACCC released an update report in June 2018 and an interim report in December 2018.

The first interim report found consumers paid much higher premiums in northern Australia, and that most insurers operated at a loss in the region during the past decade.

A second interim report is due to the Treasurer by 30 November 2019 and a final report by 30 November 2020.

Release number: 
129/19
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