The road to cheaper insurance: It pays to shop around, says Prentice

Michael Prentice
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I shopped around for out-of-country emergency medical insurance recently and saved more than  $700 on the cost of coverage for a six-week visit to the United States.

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But that pales in comparison with what some people may be able to save on another type of protection: auto insurance.

First, I’ll tell you what I learned about travel medical insurance.

Usually, I am not a very good consumer when it comes to buying insurance. Partly it’s because I’m too lazy to shop around. Partly it’s because I am shy about visiting a place selling insurance merely to seek a quote.

But I was shocked into action by how much I had to pay for emergency medical coverage on my last trip outside Canada. Perhaps it was due to my advancing age. Perhaps it was because I was treated for chest pains a half-dozen years ago, when mesh tubes were inserted into my arteries.

I visited a branch of one of Ottawa’s best-known places for buying travel insurance, where I had previously bought coverage. There, I was quoted a price of $1,118 for my six-week stay in the United States. That price, I was told, included a discount of $59 because I was a regular customer. Then I visited a branch of The Co-operators insurance company, which provides my home and auto insurance. There, I was quoted a price of $390. I could scarcely believe the price difference of $728.

In both places, I told them about the tubes put in my body after the chest pains six years ago. In both cases, the agent checked by phone with the insurance company’s medical people whether  I qualified for insurance coverage. But I have no way of knowing whether I was penalized by the high-priced insurer due to my age or medical history or for any other reason. Perhaps one company had a better idea than the other of my state of health, which I believe is good.

As a double-check, I visited two more Ottawa businesses selling insurance – one of them a bank, the other an insurance broker representing several insurance companies. The bank gave me a quote that was almost the same as the $1,118 one. The broker gave me a quote that was about the same as The Co-operators’.

As with all insurance, you never know how good it is until you need it. But I was comfortable with my decision to buy the much lower-priced coverage and confident it met my needs.

Now for some highly valuable information about auto insurance.

It’s aimed especially at those who believe they are paying too much – you are probably right! And you could be paying two, three times or even four times as much as necessary.

We know this thanks to an invaluable tool provided to the public by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario. This is a government agency that monitors – and, to some extent, regulates – auto insurance.

In theory, the commission curbs excessive pricing of auto insurance. In practice, insurance companies charge pretty well what they like.

According to this tool, in Ottawa, for example, a 40-ish married couple with impeccable driving records and owning two vehicles could pay anywhere between $1,433 and $6,198 a year in auto insurance. It just depends on which insurance company they choose. And those two extreme quotes are for the same two vehicles: a 2010 Ford F-150 and a 2009 Honda Civic.

Why does almost no one seem to know about this wonderful consumer tool? It beats me. I wrote about it in OBJ in October 2011.

Actually, the blame may lie chiefly with the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, which does a poor job of publicizing the data, available on the organization’s website though it’s a bit tricky to find.

Go to the commission’s website at fsco.gov.on.ca and click on auto insurance. On the right side of the page, there is a column headed “Understanding rates/An interactive tool.” There you can find auto insurance rates charged by various companies for different categories of drivers in cities throughout Ontario, including Ottawa.

Every vehicle owner should look it up to see if he or she is being overcharged for auto insurance.

Michael Prentice is OBJ’s columnist on retail and consumer issues. He can be contacted at news@obj.ca.

Organizations: The Co-operators, Financial Services Commission of Ontario

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, United States Ontario

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