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Bill proposes English as language that governs insurance contracts

A Senate panel voted Wednesday to let insurers disavow foreign-language versions of the contracts they provide, a move one lawmaker said will allow companies to “give people the shaft.”

HB 2083 would spell out that the English language version of any policy governs any dispute between insurance companies and their customers, even if a version in another language prepared by the company says something else. It would, however, require that there be a disclosure on the non-English version that it has no binding effect, no matter the difference.

Rep. David Livingston (R-Peoria)

Rep. David Livingston (R-Peoria)

The measure, approved on a 4-3 party line vote by the Senate Finance Committee, is being sponsored at the behest of the industry by Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria. He said the presumption of validity for the English version starts with the 2006 voter-approved constitutional provision measure declaring English the official language of the state.

But Livingston said the change actually will help those who don’t speak English.

“There are some words, especially technical words, in contracts that don’t translate exactly,” he said. Livingston said that can result in disputes about which version governs.

“The insurance companies are saying, ‘I’m not going to take that risk,’ ” he said, deciding to furnish only an English version even when customers don’t speak that language. Livingston said his bill would encourage insurers to provide versions in other languages knowing that these can’t be used against them in court.

But it was precisely that point that annoyed foes.

“If you’re saying that only English governs, and the customer is provided with a Spanish or any other language translation of the contract, and they sign on as a customer in good faith thinking that’s what they’re doing, and then there’s a dispute and it’s a translation problem, you’ve just transferred the risk and liability onto the customer,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.

Livingston, a former insurance agent, said the alternative is having no translation at all. He said that has meant situations where a couple that does not speak English ends up bringing a bilingual child to the office of the insurance company to help a parent understand the basics of coverage.

And Livingston said that his legislation actually will help those in non-English speaking communities, providing them more opportunities to get coverage. Farley sniffed at that contention.

“If the insurance company wants the business enough, to be able to ask for the business and have that contract, they should be willing to stand behind the contract in whatever language they have translated it for,” he said.

“It sounds like a good idea,” said Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson. “But then they give the people the shaft.”

Marc Osborn, lobbyist for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., said there are protections against insurers using a deliberately mistranslated version to defraud customers.

He said nothing in the legislation would overrule existing regulations that require insurance companies to use licensed translators who have been approved by the state Department of Insurance. And Osborn said there are laws prohibiting false advertising.

The measure, which already has been approved by the House, now needs to go to the full Senate.

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