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Longtime insurance watchdog ends 40-year-old newsletter

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An independent insurance newsletter based in central Indiana and read by industry leaders and consumer advocates across the continent has placed its last issue in the mail, ceasing publication after a 40-year run.

The Insurance Forum was published under the slogan "for the unfettered exchange of ideas about insurance" and earned notoriety as a watchdog. Its last issue — its December 2013 issue — went out Nov. 7.

Founder and editor Joseph Belth, who lives outside of Ellettsville, in Monroe County, cited the demands of producing a monthly newsletter and a desire to write a memoir in his decision to end the forum. Belth is 84, he wrote in The Insurance Forum's November issue, and although he is in good health, he has detected some loss of stamina.

Belth is also wary of handing over the newsletter to another person, he wrote. He wants The Insurance Forum to be remembered in its current form, The Herald-Times reported.

Insurance industry insiders, consumer advocates and reporters reacted to the last issue.

"There aren't many people who can even understand the insurance industry at this level, and Joe is premier among them," said consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "He's got great values in terms of what he demands of corporations and their treatment of investors, and consumers and shareholders. They can't get anything by him. He's too smart. He knows accounting, he knows finance and he knows insurance."

Nader figures heavily into Belth's account of why he started The Insurance Forum. The two first met in 1966.

"I had been writing articles which did not identify companies," Belth said. "And what he said made sense: If you write an article and say 'Company X,' it's not going to be as effective as saying General Motors Corp., as an example."

Belth began naming names in his writing and started encountering censorship, he said. He referred to 31 incidents of censorship in insurance trade magazines, professional journals and professional organizations over the next eight years.

In 1973, Belth volunteered to edit a new newsletter for the American Risk and Insurance Association. But the organization's board members balked at the idea after seeing a proposed first issue, according to Belth's account. That led to Belth starting The Insurance Forum, mailing its January 1974 issue in December 1973.

Belth started the newsletter with $2,000 of his own funds. He vowed to never accept advertising, fearing it could have censoring influences.

"He did it on his own, and he wasn't in it to make money," said David Schiff, an activist in insurance regulatory issues and former industry executive who started a publication that came to be known as Schiff's Insurance Observer.

"He was in it to change things, to shake things up and improve the world," Schiff said. "It's one thing to write a history of things after they happen, but it's another to be there before it happens, to notice this and say this is important and to explain why. He's done that, and done it for 40 years."

Belth counts a 1990 George Polk award as The Insurance Forum's highest honor. Long Island University confers George Polk awards annually to honor special achievements in journalism.

Other accomplishments are harder to isolate, Belth wrote when announcing the end of The Insurance Forum to subscribers. His coverage intertwined with a range of industry changes, including the development of the interest adjustment method, crediting interest from the insured's date of death and increased efforts to detect stranger-originated life insurance, he wrote.

Belth also noted the creation of state rules to protect insurance consumers when blocks of policies are transferred between companies. And he opposed movements toward mutual holding companies, which he said forced policyholders to give up ownership rights without compensation.

Belth's writings reached beyond the borders of the United States, according to Alastair Rickard, a former life insurance executive and founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance.

"I know from my own experience in the business that even in Canada senior people in the industry follow Joe Belth," Rickard said. "While they may not have agreed with what he had to say all the time, they respected his views, even when they were different."

Belth was a professor of insurance at Indiana University. He retired from IU's Kelley School of Business in 1993 and holds the title professor emeritus of insurance.

Bruce Jaffee, a professor emeritus of business economics and public policy, was Belth's colleague. Belth is not out to shut down insurers, Jaffee said.

"This is not somebody who is trying to hurt the industry," Jaffee said. "He's a big advocate for the industry and an advocate for effective regulation. He is somebody who is committed to the industry and the importance of insurance."

Belth drew a line between The Insurance Forum and his teaching and academic research, Jaffee added. "I know in his office he had two telephones. One that was specifically for Insurance Forum operations and one phone that related to university business."

Those in the news business will miss The Insurance Forum as well.

It's sad to see the newsletter ending, said Jake Bernstein, a business reporter in the independent not-for-profit newsroom ProPublica. Bernstein read The Insurance Forum and has interviewed Belth, he said.

"He never lost his focus in being a really strong consumer advocate and maintaining a sense of outrage when he sees insurance companies or others doing what they shouldn't be doing," Bernstein said. "I really admire the guy, and I think it's sad because I don't see that many other voices like this taking his place."

Darla Mercado, a reporter covering insurance and retirement products for InvestmentNews, echoed those sentiments.

"He's been a really great source over the time I've been covering this beat," she said. "He's very faithful to some very basic journalistic principles. Objectivity, for instance, and thorough research."

Belth's not done covering the insurance industry, though. He ended The Insurance Forum in part so he would have time to write a memoir about his experiences with the newsletter. He's also started blogging at www.josephmbelth.com, and his posts are similar to his articles in The Insurance Forum.

Belth has plenty to cover. He listed several pieces of unfinished business in the November 2013 issue of The Insurance Forum, including achieving price disclosure for life insurance customers, toughening penalties for deceptive sales practices and unfair claims practices, and disclosure laws covering the compensation of insurance executives.

The coverage in The Insurance Forum required tracking federal court cases and cases in numerous state courts. In addition, it necessitated dealing with state agencies and regulators, a task that required use of freedom of information laws, Belth said.

Attention to detail is also apparent in the newsletter's pages. Belth thanked more than 125 people by name in his November 2013 issue for contributing to the publication over its 40 years.

Belth was often unwilling to back down when writing in The Insurance Forum.

"I've had people tell me on the phone, 'If you print something about this, we'll sue you," he said. "In other words, they threatened me. But I haven't been threatened in a long time, probably because they realize that if they threaten me, I just publish the fact that they threaten me."

Belth's family is connected to The Insurance Forum. His son, Jeffrey Belth, serves as the newsletter's circulation manager.

Jeffrey Belth expects his father to continue following the insurance industry even though the newsletter is no longer being printed.

"He has put in many, many hours over the years working on it, virtually on a daily basis," Jeffrey Belth said. "I don't know what he would do if he didn't keep following it."

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