The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _July 1997

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Jim Omvig


An Old Friend Is Honored:
Our Fight Against Insurance Discrimination Remembered

by James H. Omvig

From the Editor: Jim Omvig of Tucson, Arizona, has been an active leader of the National Federation of the Blind since the early 1960's. He has played a key role in several major Federation victories, including the struggle to stamp out insurance discrimination against the blind. This is what he says:

In late February, 1997, I was contacted by Mrs. Kay Williams of Des Moines, Iowa, formerly an Administrative Assistant with the Iowa Insurance Department. Kay told me that an Insurance Department of Iowa's Hall of Fame was being established, and she asked for my help.

Kay was nominating former Iowa Insurance Commissioner Herbert Anderson as a charter inductee into the new Hall of Fame (Herb passed away in 1979). Since she knew that Herb had played a key role in the NFB's fight to eliminate insurance discrimination against the blind, she felt that a letter from me outlining Herb's contribution in our struggle would give additional weight to her nomination.

Of course I agreed to do it. I have now heard again from Mrs. Williams. She told me that Herb Anderson was indeed inducted posthumously as a charter member. She said that my letter outlining what Herb did for the Federation was a pivotal factor in his selection.

Following is the text of my letter of support:

March 4, 1997

Mrs. Kay Williams, Director
Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board
Des Moines, Iowa

Re: Insurance Department of Iowa's Hall of Fame
Support for the Posthumous Induction of Herbert (Herb)W. Anderson

Dear Mrs. Williams:

The purpose of this letter is to urge as strongly as I can that former Iowa Insurance Commissioner Herbert W. Anderson be among the charter inductees into the Insurance Department of Iowa's Hall of Fame. I consider it both an honor and a privilege to have known and worked with Herb, and it is also both an honor and a privilege for me to have the opportunity to write this letter in support of his induction. I apologize for its length, but the impact Herb had on the lives of blind Americans can be understood only if the story of Herb Anderson and the blind of America is told.

The poet Kahlil Gibran, the author of The Prophet, wrote, "Work is love made visible." I believe that this brief but profound phrase captures the essence of the man Herb Anderson. He loved and thrived on his work; he loved the law; he loved good and right and justice; he loved his family and his fellow human beings; and he demonstrated all of this love through his tireless work and his monumental achievements. Also his loyalty, his character, and his integrity were above reproach. And, as if all of this were not enough, it must also be pointed out that Herb possessed a healthy supply of plain old common sense.

I first met Herb Anderson professionally (I had previously met him socially) in July of 1976. My wife Sharon and I had traveled by plane from Des Moines to Los Angeles and back during the first week of July of that year. At the Des Moines airport we tried to purchase flight insurance. The carrier would sell $375,000 of insurance to my sighted wife but would sell me only $20,000 worth because I am blind.

Upon returning to Des Moines, I went to see Herb to file a complaint of insurance discrimination against the blind. Even though the Iowa Insurance Regulation did not specifically prohibit discrimination based upon blindness, Herb accepted my complaint since, in general, the regulations did prohibit unfair discrimination. His acceptance of this complaint induced speedy action, and the discriminating carrier resolved the problem within a matter of days.

However, by this time I had informed Herb that flight insurance was not a blind person's only or even his or her major insurance problem. Some companies would not sell life insurance to us at all. Others would sell, but at an increased rate. Some would sell only to the well-adjusted blind. Many would not sell policies with double-indemnity or waiver-of-premium benefits, and many would not sell medical insurance at all. All of this was based upon the assumption that we were poor risks.

It must be understood that I was not asking for any kind of special treatment for the blind. I was asking only for equal treatment under the law, and Herb understood and accepted this premise.

Demonstrating something of the thoroughness and fairness of Herb Anderson, he did not simply accept my telling him that all of the foregoing was true. To learn the objective facts for himself and for the Insurance Commission, he conducted a survey of the major carriers doing business in Iowa.

The results were so shocking and so outrageous that Herb decided to propose a rule-making procedure to establish an Iowa Rule specifically prohibiting unfair discrimination against the blind. This was a first in the United States.

I shall never forget hearing day. Herb had set aside a small hearing room, and he had also decided to conduct the hearing himself. He had assumed there would be two or three witnesses. Instead, more than two-hundred industry officials and representatives from throughout this nation showed up to oppose the rule. The industry does not like to be regulated. The hearing had to be delayed until he could find a larger facility.

After each of those officials who testified in opposition was finished making a presentation, Herb asked, "And what empirical data, what evidence do you have to show that the blind are in fact poor risks?" None was able to produce a shred of evidence, and Herb ultimately adopted the rule. His action did not win any friends for him in the industry, but he stood firm in his conviction that the blind must be treated fairly unless it could be shown that we were, in fact, poor risks.

Herb's quest for justice and his deep commitment to and concern for his fellow human beings then led him to work with us and to take up the issue of insurance discrimination against the blind as a national project. He invited me to come to Miami in the fall of 1977 to address the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). He said that, from time to time, the NAIC adopted model regulations, and he wanted to work with the blind of America first to establish a model and then to have that model prohibiting unfair insurance discrimination against the blind adopted formally in each of the several states.

Herb was suggesting that the two of us engage in no small enterprise--he was proposing that we challenge and take on the entire insurance industry in America. He was fearless.

I did go to Florida and made the speech. With Herb's help and guidance, the NAIC decided to create a task force to study the issue.

And what a time we had! The task force consisted of thirteen members--eleven industry officials, Herb, and me. Some of the early task force meetings were stormy, and Herb and I each came in for some pretty vigorous verbal abuse. But again Herb stood like a rock. The more hostile and outrageous the attack, the more committed and steadfast he became.

To divert for a moment, I must tell another story since it further defines and distinguishes the character and integrity of Herbert Anderson. In the spring of 1977 (at its annual state convention), the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa bestowed its highest honor, The Altig Award, on Herb for his major contribution to civil rights protection for the blind. For many years we had presented each recipient of this award with an engraved plaque in the shape of Iowa and a suitably engraved gold watch, and we did the same for Herb.

After the public presentation had been made, Herb came to me in private and told me that he could not accept the gold watch unless we would permit him to pay us for it. Frankly, the blind of Iowa who knew of the incident were distressed and outraged that the laws had become so rigid that we couldn't honor a deserving Iowa state official with the gift of an engraved watch. But in the final analysis Herb won the day. We agreed with him, he paid, and he kept the watch. On the issue of ethics in government, Herb was no doubt a man ahead of his time.

Now back to the national anti-discrimination campaign. Ultimately Herb and I convinced the other eleven on the task force to agree to a model regulation, and the NAIC adopted it at its June, 1978, meeting in Washington, D.C. I made a speech to the group and talked with individuals for several days urging adoption of the model but behind the scenes Herb was obviously the one who did a lot of the convincing and vote -getting.

We then worked state by state for adoption of the regulation. Through all of this work and close contact with the various states, I learned an astonishing thing--that in many of the states the insurance industry controls the state insurance commissions. I dare say that the same was not true for Herb. He was his own man, and his sole concern was to protect the rights and interests of the citizens of Iowa.

Herb attended National Conventions of the National Federation of the Blind both in New Orleans in 1977 and Baltimore in 1978. He reported both on his work in Iowa and also his national effort through the NAIC. He received the Dr. Newel Perry Award, the highest recognition a non-Federationist can receive, from the National Federation of the Blind, in 1977 in New Orleans. By 1978 he had become a beloved figure among the blind of America. Again, in presenting him with the Perry Award, we gave him an engraved plaque, but this time we did not make the mistake of placing him in the unfortunate and embarrassing position of having to buy another expensive, engraved gold watch from us.

It should be noted as an aside that over time Herb's interests and concerns for the blind broadened beyond the issue of insurance. He became interested in and committed to the much larger struggle of social justice for the blind.

Now it is almost twenty years later. Most blind Americans routinely purchase all types of insurance on an equal basis with the sighted without so much as a ripple. Many of the blind of this generation are not even aware of the struggle. But Herb truly made his mark in the annals of the blind and in our larger struggle to achieve first-class citizenship.

Between July of 1976 and the time of Herb's passing in 1979, he and Jodie, his wife, and Sharon and I became close personal friends. I had the opportunity to observe him socially as well as professionally. I have never known a finer human being or a more compassionate, committed, or distinguished public official. His love was clearly made visible through his good and abundant work.

Herb touched our lives, and Sharon and I personally, and the blind of America generally, are all the better and richer for it. Herbert W. Anderson truly deserves to be a posthumous charter inductee into the Insurance Department of Iowa's Hall of Fame.


James H. Omvig