On January 14th, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon will be sworn in for his second term, and we are wondering whether the Governor’s plans for 2015 are influencing the direction of Missouri’s preneed reform. With commentary such as that published by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Governor may have his eyes on a 2015 campaign for national office. At a minimum, Governor Nixon could be targeting an old rival’s U.S. Senate seat. Either way, the Governor faces a nagging situation with NPS, and may feel compelled to accelerate preneed reform and deflect the criticism that has persisted for almost five years.

When National Prearranged Services collapsed in 2008, NPS funeral providers were especially critical of how then Attorney General Nixon settled the 1991 NPS lawsuit. The Attorney General’s office responded that they did the best possible with the weak enforcement powers provided by Chapter 436. Missouri’s Republican administration countered with a review committee formed for the purpose of finding industry consensus for preneed reform. But, the industry struggled to agree on key issues, and the State’s regulators took the lead in drafting Senate Bill. No. 1. In 2009, a newly elected Governor Nixon inherited the NPS fallout and a prior administration’s effort at preneed reform. Now four years later, the NPS fallout has somewhat abated (but not resolved), and there isn’t much to show in terms of preneed reform.

In contrast to the mortgage crisis or the state budget crisis, the NPS situation will not benefit from the recoveries of the nation’s economy or the financial markets. The Cassitys’ emptied the cupboards, and funeral homes are dependent upon the fixed recoveries negotiated with the state insurance guaranty fund. Most NPS providers are finding ways to cope, but one industry group persistently reminds the Governor and legislators of their discontent. The Governor would like to counter their criticism with evidence that preneed has been made safer under his watch, but it can take years to implement effective reporting and examination procedures.

As we noted in July 2011, a sudden increase in the number of financial examinations suggested that the Division was being pressured to accelerate the process. Shortly thereafter, the Division staff also began to press the State Board to define the insurance assignment as a preneed contract. The State Board and the Division staff disagreed on the insurance assignment issue, and frustration began to develop as the issue was pressed in subsequent meetings. That frustration culminated with a December 12th unanimous vote by the Board members to define insurance beneficiary designations as a preneed contract, but a preneed contract that would be exempt from the $36 preneed fee. Division staff warned that the distinction may not be legal. Within hours of the vote, the Governor’s office announced a Board appointment to replace Todd Mahn, the Chairman who had called for the vote.

The Governor’s website for Missouri’s Boards and Commissions states

"I am always looking for qualified, energetic applicants to serve on Missouri’s 200-plus boards and commissions. Please spread the word. I would greatly appreciate it if you would encourage your colleagues and friends to review the vacancies and complete an application."

While this author has disagreed with some of the positions taken by Mr. Mahn, I do not question his commitment to the industry, or to the State Board. Nor did the former Chairman lack for enthusiasm and energy while serving the Board. But, rather than replace a Board member with known health issues that was serving on an expired term, the Governor replaced the younger Chairman.

It may not have been the Governor’s intent, but the appointment could be taken as message to State Board members to ‘get with the program’. But the Governor, and the Division, risk losing the confidence of both the Board and the industry. Someone has lost sight of the first issue discussed at the 2008 legislative meetings: who should have jurisdiction over preneed. Several state agencies attended that meeting, and none expressed any interest in assuming jurisdiction over the preneed transaction. As explained in a 2009 post, financial and insurance regulators often struggle to provide effective preneed oversight because they tend to focus on the ‘backend’ of the transaction (that part of the transaction they are most familiar). The front end of the transaction can take many different forms, which can push the transaction outside the normal scope of the agency’s jurisdiction. (For example, the Nebraska Insurance Department has jurisdiction over preneed sales, which includes trust funding.) When State Board members ‘stepped up’ in 2009 to retain jurisdiction (and demonstrate that the industry could provide meaningful self regulation), a collective sigh could be heard from the Missouri Division of Finance and the Missouri Department of Insurance. The Missouri legislature signed off on State Board jurisdiction, and in doing so made a trade off: reform would rely upon the collective experiences and training of six State Board members instead of an appointed department official. Governance by a board will never be the most efficient or expedient path to action.

In SB1, the State Board was given the task of protecting consumers against another NPS by developing procedures for preneed reporting and auditing. However, the Board is dependent upon the Division of Professional Registration for staffing, legal counsel, funding and reporting administration. Together, the Board and Division crafted a mission statement for the financial examinations that was to be the cornerstone of Missouri preneed reform. From this observer’s perspective, the State Board members never understood how the insurance assignment fit in to that mission statement. Explanations given to the State Board were unpersuasive, leaving an industry to wonder whether the issue was fee driven.

It may have taken the State Board a year to reach an agreement on the insurance assignment issue, but we believe the Chairman made the right call. This issue had a greater importance to the Division than it did the State Board, and there is speculation that the $36 fee, Chapter 208 and the state budget played a factor. Regardless, a resolution was needed so that the Board and the staff could turn to more substantive reform issues, including whether SB1 provides sufficient audit powers and protections. If the Division can look no further than the funeral home’s records, would SB1 have even stopped NPS?