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Lawmakers ask why Holocaust claims rejected

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (JTA) – Some members of Congress are wondering why so many insurance claims from Holocaust survivors are being rejected.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and 45 other members of Congress wrote a Sept. 29 letter to Lawrence Eagleburger, chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, expressing concern that insurance companies are rejecting about three of every four processed claims.

Created in 1998, ICHEIC is an international organization that aims to settle survivors’ claims on policies purchased from European insurers between 1930 and 1945.

The reason for the majority of the denials is a combination of insufficient proof and suspected postwar settlement, according to a report issued by the ICHEIC on Sept. 4.

To date, ICHEIC’s six insurance companies have ruled on 667 claims. Another 241 are pending. All claims must be filed by 2002.

Waxman also criticized a provision of the German Foundation Fund, a June 12 agreement between the United States and eight European governments industries, designed to protect the companies from American lawsuits in exchange for a $5 billion settlement for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers.

One part of the agreement capped the amount of money from German insurance companies could pay to survivor claims at $150 million. The measure sparked concern that the sum would be insufficient to cover all claims, and that it would unfairly restrict legal action against the insurance companies.

“These companies should not be immunized without full accountability for paying what they owe,” Waxman said.

Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state who has chaired the ICHEIC since its inception, responded in a letter last week.

“It was never, and is not now, intended that decisions taken by the companies on the fast-track cases would be ICHEIC’s last word on those claims,” he said.

“Fast-track” cases are those that were settled before ICHEIC was created.

Eagleburger promised that all denied claims would have a right to appeal the decision, and that the process would be in place “very soon.”

ICHEIC’s media campaign and Web site has resulted in more than 50,000 completed claims forms, though many cannot name specific insurers and lack evidence of an existing policy, Eagleburger said.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, an ICHEIC member, called the letter “well-intentioned, but misdirected.” Steinberg said he worried that altering the German fund settlement now would only further delay payment to aging survivors and their heirs, and in the worst-case scenario, dissolve the entire agreement.

“I don’t disagree with taking out the insurance component, but politically, it is not possible,” he said. “Do you scuttle the entire German fund to raise the [insurance] cap?”

Though its effect remains to be seen, Waxman’s letter taps into questions of how best to resolve survivor insurance claims that have divided Jewish groups, state governments and political leaders on the front lines of the issue.

“The letter really reflects the anger of many survivors who believe they do have potential claims against these insurance companies,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Prohibiting lawsuits against these companies under the German agreement is only the most recent in a succession of obstacles to survivors’ receiving payment on insurance claims, he said.

There is persistent concern that ICHEIC is not doing enough to pressure its five member-companies to release the names and personal information of Holocaust-era policyholders, he said. The ICHEIC site currently posts about 19,000 names, far fewer than Cooper and others believe could be made available.

The organization has no formal power of enforcement over the participating insurers, which are Allianz of Germany; Assicurazioni Generali of Italy; AXA Group of France; and Winterthur and Zurich, both of Switzerland. These companies wrote about 35 percent of European policies between 1930 and 1945. Many other European insurance groups declined to join the organization.

Some states are taking their own steps to speed up the claims process. This April, Minnesota joined California, Florida, New York and Washington state, which have all enacted laws restricting the ability of European insurers to practice in their states, without first settling Holocaust-era claims. The laws also allow state insurance agencies to compile their own registry of potential Holocaust-era claimants from company disclosures. Only the insurance commissions of California, Florida and New York are formal members of ICHEIC.

“In large part, the [Washington] law has not been successful, because of extreme company resistance,” said Danny Kadden of the Holocaust Survivors Assistance Office of the Washington State Insurance Commission. Many insurers have cited European privacy laws that prevent them from releasing the names of policyholders, he said.

There have been no sanctions so far against noncompliant companies, though they have been asked to appear for an “dialogue” before the commission, he said.

The laws are a “way of supporting the ICHEIC process,” Kadden said. “But if it fails to deliver on its promises, then the insurance commissioner has a right to exercise the authority given to her by the law.”

In California, the state insurance commission last year launched an unfair trade practices investigation against one German insurer, and was looking into pursuing several other companies. A challenge to the California law from one of those insurers is pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals. Last year in Florida, 40 subpoenas to companies that had not complied with the Holocaust claims law.

U.S. State Department and Treasury Department officials have asked that companies cooperating with ICHEIC not face another investigation from individual states. New York, Washington and Minnesota statutes do include a provisional “safe harbor” measure to protect these companies.

Neal Sher, chief of staff for ICHEIC, said that the state laws “will have no real effect,” though he does support measures that furthers the mission of ICHEIC.

Those companies “that cooperate with ICHEIC in good faith deserve protection from state laws,” he said.

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