COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley has chosen an industry lobbyist to be the state’s top insurance regulator.
Haley announced Tuesday that she has nominated Ray Farmer, 66, a Georgia native with more than 40 years’ experience working in the insurance industry, to lead the S.C. Department of Insurance.
A consumer advocate said Haley is taking the wrong approach in a state that’s already very favorable to the insurance industry.
Farmer, who is to become interim agency director on Dec. 3, ultimately will have to be confirmed by the S.C. Senate.
He said he is retiring from his post as the Southeast region vice president for the American Insurance Association, an industry group.
Haley said she wanted a businessperson to lead the Insurance Department, not an ex-legislator or bureaucrat, several of whom she said sought the job.
“He knows the insurance industry, and the insurance commission should be about jobs and customer service,” she said.
Haley said Farmer knows what policies work, what businesses are looking for and what gets them a good profit margin while still providing customer service.
Haley’s choice continues a tradition of picking industry insiders to run an agency charged with balancing the needs of consumers with the companies that provide insurance.
Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said Farmer represents more of the same from an agency that does little to question rate-increase requests from insurers.
“When are we going to start looking out for consumers?” she asked.
Asked how Farmer would approach making sure consumers are getting fair insurance rates, Haley said Farmer will work with the director of the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services when it comes to health insurance.
But that agency isn’t involved in setting insurance rates.
Farmer’s nomination infuriated Daryl Ferguson, a retired chief executive officer from Beaufort who formed a team of business leaders to examine the state’s high home insurance rates.
“A lobbyist? It’s absolutely the wrong thing for what the state needs,” he said. “You want someone who is 100 percent objective, someone to look after the rates through the customer’s eyes and from a company’s perspective. It’s almost criminal.”
Ferguson said his team hoped to meet with the governor before she chose a new director, but the governor’s staff never made that meeting happen. Ferguson, a Republican, said he formed the team after doing extensive research that showed the home insurance rates along the coast were among the highest in the nation, even though the risk of a catastrophic hurricane striking the coast was relatively low.
The state insurance commissioner post hasn’t had a permanent director since David Black, a former executive with Liberty Life Insurance, resigned abruptly under controversial circumstances last December.