Resolution passes lava zone insurance matter to state commissioner

A County Council resolution seeks the aid of the state insurance commissioner to reduce home insurance costs in Puna.

A resolution discussed during Wednesday’s meeting of the council originally urged the county Finance Department to investigate ways to stabilize home insurance rates in Lava Zones 1 and 2, where premiums have climbed significantly in the wake of the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

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Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, who introduced the resolution, said insurance rates in those zones — which encompass more than 50% of parcels in Puna — in some cases have escalated to more than $5,000 a year, compared to typical rates of about $1,200 pre-eruption.

Insurance policies in Lava Zones 1 and 2 are exclusively offered by a single provider, the Hawaii Property Insurance Association, which, as the only company willing to provide coverage to new clients in those zones can set its prices higher without fear of competition, Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said.

“The reality is, these insurance costs will drive families away from Puna,” he said.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder amended the resolution Wednesday to remove the request to the Finance Department. He said the insurance commissioner has not yet responded to requests for feedback, and urged the county to continue to make an effort to find ways to stabilize insurance rates.

“I’m not clearing the county of responsibility,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “We can’t take the backseat on this. We have an obligation to the people of the county. This is still good social policy.”

While Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder’s fellow council members sympathized with the problem during a council committee meeting April 6, many thought the original resolution was too vague to be usable by the county, and recommended changing it.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung — who only offered nominal support for the resolution on April 6 — on Wednesday said the earlier version “set the Finance Department up for failure” because of the scope of the assignment.

Chung was supportive Wednesday about passing the matter to the insurance commissioner.

The council voted to adopt the changes to the resolution, and a vote on the amended resolution will take place at the next council meeting.

What methods the insurance commissioner could employ to stabilize insurance rates were not discussed Wednesday.

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Previously, Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder suggested the county could create a captive insurance company that could set a limit on insurance rates in Puna, but Finance Director Deanna Sako said on April 6 that she was unsure whether the county has the authority to do so.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@Hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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