Judi French serves as the Director of the Ohio Department of Insurance. Her team’s mission is to provide consumer protection through education and fair but vigilant regulation, while promoting a stable and competitive environment for insurers. Lori Barron is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Ohio Department of Insurance and leads the Emerging Products division. Director French and Lori were interviewed by Michael Fiedel, a Managing Director at InsurTech Ohio and Co-Founder at PolicyFly, Inc.
Michael: Director French, what is the focus of the Emerging Products division at the Ohio Department of Insurance and why is it so important to you and your team?
Director French: “The focus of the emerging products initiative is communication, helping carriers navigate through the regulatory process. Whether it's a new startup company or an existing carrier with a new product, we want to help them navigate through that regulatory process. We provide a point of contact through Lori and her team that really assists in that navigation, so we encourage communication from the very beginning of an idea. That way we can answer questions early on and provide guidance starting from the earliest possible point.
This has helped us expedite the actual application and filing process. We provide a timeline upfront and commit to providing direction within 30 days. That doesn't mean that a product is going to get through the department in 30 days, but it does mean that you will get feedback within a short period of time. I've seen how surprised companies are by that commitment, and I understand how frustrating it can be to work with the government and how slowly things can move. We want to move as quickly as this innovation is moving, and it's really important to us for several reasons. One, it gets those new products and services into the industry that ultimately will benefit our consumers. It provides assistance to carriers, both the new ones and the existing ones to help them through the regulatory process. It also really helps to make sure that we're not a barrier to those carriers and the kinds of changes that they'd like to make in the market.”
Michael: Are there any types of emerging products that your team is particularly excited about when they think of the future of the insurance industry?
Director French: “For me, it's not so much about individual products as it is about the focus around consumer expectations and consumer desires. We're all about protecting consumers, and their expectations are changing as rapidly as technology is changing. While we see lots of new ideas and new products, it's really that focus on how we can better serve consumers that I think is most exciting. There are lots of new areas of insurance that are growing. Things like travel insurance and pet insurance, those are growth industries. I have been joking for a week about William Shatner going into space. I happen to be a Star Trek fan, so I was delighted to see it. My first thought was, ‘I wonder if he has space travel insurance?’”
Michael: What should future entrepreneurs consider when choosing where to start their business?
Director French: “To be direct, we want them to think of Ohio first. If somebody has a new idea about an insurance product and a new way of doing business and serving consumers needs, we want them to think of Ohio. First, Ohio is a business-friendly regulatory state. There are a lot of resources within the state. There is a huge insurance industry in the state of Ohio already, so the energy and resources around that industry could be important for somebody new to the market or the 100,000 Ohioans already working in the insurance industry in Ohio. We are the seventh largest insurance market in the country and in the top 20 in the world, so we know insurance and work a lot with industry groups like InsurTech Ohio to make sure that entrepreneurs know we're here and willing to help with that process.”
Michael: Do you foresee the continuing evolution of the insurance industry in any way changing the role and/or purpose of the department of insurance?
Director French: “Well, not our primary role. That is around consumer protection. As the industry evolves, the need to protect consumers will remain. I will say though, that with these new technologies, there may come new challenges, and we need to be ready for that. One example would be around cybersecurity; the more information that’s being gathered about consumers, the more protected that information is going to have to be. We have been part of a national effort to make sure that we're addressing from the regulatory perspective any new cybersecurity needs and protections that might be out there. The creation of our emerging products initiative is in direct response to the evolution of the industry.
I think we have to keep evolving and trying to keep up with how insurance and all industries are changing. As more carriers enter the market, we've created additional focus on interacting with those carriers to help them navigate the environment. And as new products have emerged, we've been encouraging the increased dialogue throughout that development process. It's a great mix of dealing with new startups, but also those carriers out there that we've been dealing with for decades. At the end of the day, I think we need to have stable and predictable regulation with a focus on responsiveness and communication, always with an eye toward protecting consumers as the market changes.”
Michael: Lori, when did the Emerging Products division launch and how big is the team?
Lori: “It's a fairly new initiative. It kicked off in January and is built around myself and two staff members.”
Michael: Why did you want to take advantage of working for the state?
Lori: “I think that the consumer protection mission is an exciting and crucial opportunity. I treasure this chance to work in insurance and have the opportunity to partner in the exciting space of emerging products and innovation with a number of different carriers. I believe it's that commitment that sets us apart. We're not going to be a barrier, instead we're going to be there, help and move as fast as you want to move. It's just that simple - the commitment and care toward being a service to those carriers.”
Michael: Director French, is there anything else in closing that makes the Ohio Department of Insurance unique?
Director French: “I think there's a focus of being open to these new ideas, wanting to engage in these conversations, working with other economic development partners who are in the same kind of business, and wanting to grow as an economy. It feels very comprehensive. It's not just the Ohio Department of Insurance. It's all of those - it's the administration and the economic development leaders in both the public and private sector. If it were just the Ohio Department of Insurance in a vacuum, there's only so much we could do, but we want this feeling of openness and welcome to insurance carriers so that there is an exceptional level of collaboration. There's a lot of workforce development going on, and the Ohio Department of Insurance is right there in the middle of it.”