North Carolinians are just sick about health insurance, doctors, medical billing and collection practices, health products and services — more so than questionable loans and lending practices, Do Not Call list violations and telemarketing schemes.

The health care category topped a list of complaints to the North Carolina Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Division in 2010, representing the sixth consecutive year that such gripes landed in the No. 1 spot.

State Attorney General Roy Cooper recently noted that more than 4,600 residents of the state lodged these complaints. One silver lining was that the number of consumer complaints in North Carolina fell to 21,879 from 22,665 the previous year.

But producers in the Tar Heel State do not appear to be in the crosshairs of these complaints, and can breathe a collective sigh of relief once the findings are analyzed in more detail.

Chad Blankenburg, president of the National Association of Health Underwriters’ North Carolina chapter, explains that in a state with 9.5 million residents, these grievances represent just 0.04% of the population and that the category is "exceedingly broad."

Also, it’s worth noting that a common complaint was about weight-loss products with hidden fees accompanying promises of a free trial. While the North Carolina Department of Insurance wasn’t able to speculate as to the nature of the complaints, the agency did provide some of its own research.

Kerry Hall, director of public information, reported that there were 3,703 written complaints last year about life, health and accident insurance products in both the group and individual markets — with most of those gripes related to claim denials, delays or unsatisfactory settlements.

Any consumer anger about health care in North Carolina isn’t translating into data collected at the federal level. The category last year came in at No. 17 of 30 areas tracked by the Consumer Sentinel Network, an online database with more than 6.1 million consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies since 2006.

Of the more than 1.3 million gripes that were tracked, 21,710, or 2% of all complaints, were traced to health care. More complaints were made about identity theft than any other categories.

Teri Gutierrez, president and managing partner of Raleigh, N.C.-based IBS/White Bear Group, is somewhat surprised by the breadth of grievances in her state, even if they account for a fraction of the population.

"The agents I know and associate with put in thousands of hours a year helping get claims paid for people, getting procedures approved, sorting out billing issues, and acting as the human resource and compliance departments for small employers, just to name some of the things we do for clients," she says.

Gutierrez estimates that selling a policy to an employer or employee accounts for only about 10% of her time, with the other 90% devoted to servicing clients needs. "I would hate to see even one complaint come through as it pertains to the health care industry, and I know that my fellow NCAHU members strive every day to work toward meeting all of our clients’ needs and preventing the need to file a complaint."

The lesson for brokers and advisers is "to have a thorough understanding of client needs and what products or services fit," according to Steve Graybill, a Charlotte, N.C.-based senior health consultant for Mercer. "Our world is getting complicated and requires more depth of resources. Thus, you have seen a number of the smaller agencies sell and join forces with larger firms."

— Bruce Shutan is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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