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Ain't misbehavin' on Marcy's watch


It sounds like a tough job, being Colorado's insurance commissioner. It's also hard to describe. In essence, you monitor companies and try to make sure Big Industry isn't putting the screws to consumers.

As Marcy Morrison has found, it means that your accomplishments like netting nearly $80 million in workers' compensation savings aren't nearly as "sexy" for the media as other subjects. Like, say, some photographer getting kicked by a soon-to-be lawmaker.

But, as Morrison knows after a year in her latest role, insurance is something about which everyday people care a great, great deal.

"It seems like when I go out and talk to people, I get an earful," she says. "If it's not health insurance, it's auto insurance."

Morrison, whose career in public service spans decades, is applying the same principles and passion heading the state bureaucracy as she did when serving on the Manitou Springs School Board, then on El Paso County Commission, then at the State House, then as mayor of Manitou Springs.

(And yes, despite all that longtime nasty accusation from what she calls the Rigid Right that Morrison is a Republican in Name Only the moderate still is a proud member of the Grand Old Party.)

Her boss, Gov. Bill Ritter, just happens to be a Democrat. After he was elected in late 2006, he asked Morrison to head up insurance. And when he gave his State of the State speech earlier this month, one of the successes Ritter detailed while recounting his first year was the nearly $80 million in savings that Morrison's office realized. Most of it came in the form of reduced workers' comp insurance and, in the words of the governor, "good news for Colorado businesses."

In 2007, Morrison's office processed 1,417 complaints from consumers, and recovered some $7.5 million in direct restitutions, which companies were forced to pay to consumers. She racked up more than 3,000 contacts with individuals and groups like Kiwanis clubs and others, hoping to step up public understanding about her office and insurance in general.

In August, she levied a $280,000 fine against Celtic Insurance Co. for violations ranging from untimely payment of claims to inappropriate denial of benefits. At the time, Morrison underscored the message that she has for all companies that aren't being, to put it politely, consumer-friendly.

"I intend to use my full authority to protect consumers in Colorado," Morrison said. "Market conduct reports allow me to assess the performance of a company and correct unlawful conduct."

The message from Ritter, Morrison says, is this: "Consumer protection is our mission." She follows that mandate accordingly. She also knows that her role is a balancing act, one that she likens to, in some ways, being a mom.

Insurance, after all, is a big industry and important to the state's economic development. Some companies, which often get a bad rap, aren't inherently bad.

"We want to have a healthy, thriving insurance industry," Morrison notes. "No one wants to have insurance companies leaving in droves, because then you don't have as much choice."

So she looks for patterns suggesting recurring potential trouble spots.

"It's like bringing up children," Morrison says.

If a company misbehaves once or twice, well, perhaps they just don't realize Mom's rules. But when bad patterns emerge, well, Morrison says, expect Mom to step it up with more aggressive action.

Morrison is not new to the notion of consumer advocacy. In 2001, she was tapped to help set up a consumer counsel assisting potential victims of insurance fraud. Now she's working with lawmakers to put that advisory counsel into statute to ensure future administrations cannot disband the group.

A year in, Morrison is formulating plenty of other ideas. She feels that she's still at about the 50 percent mark when it comes to knowing everything she plans to know.

"I never would have believed I would get passionate about insurance," she says, "but there you are."

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