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MPI ordered to refund $320M

Vehicle owners' rebate will average $450; utilities board gives auto insurer a scolding

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Winnipeg Blue Bomber tickets? A new iPod? A down payment on a new iPad? A fancy night out on the town? New fishing gear? New shoes? Blu-ray player? Or be smart and pay down the credit card?

The list is different for each Manitoba vehicle owner as Manitoba Public Insurance sets the wheels in motion to issue an unprecedented 45 per cent rebate cheque May 31.

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The size of the cheque depends on how much you paid in Autopac coverage in 2009-10, but the average rebate will be about $450.

"There's a lot of things people can do with that money," said Nick Roberts of the Manitoba Used Car Dealers Association. "You could just keep it for your next Autopac payment or just go out and buy something."

The rebate was ordered Thursday -- a refund of about $320 million -- in a somewhat surprising ruling by Manitoba's Public Utilities Board.

"The magnitude of the actual amount is shocking," Consumers Association of Canada lawyer Byron Williams said. "We knew it was coming, but we didn't anticipate its size."

The day before, the public regulator held a special hearing to deal with the recent revelation that an extensive external review of MPI's Personal Injury Protection Plan found it had about $250 million more than it needed to pay injury claims.

The PUB made it clear to MPI officials they should have first told the board about the excess money rather than publicly releasing the information through Attorney General Andrew Swan and a March 18 government press release. Swan is the minister responsible for MPI.

Board chairman Graham Lane ended Wednesday's hearing saying the PUB would consider how it would handle the excess money and potential rebate.

Less than 24 hours later, the PUB released its order saying Manitobans should get a 45 per cent rebate, up from the 10 per cent rebate ordered several months ago. This will be the sixth MPI rebate since 2000.

"Effective regulation can only be achieved in an atmosphere of openness and transparency involving, at least, the regulated entity and its regulator," Lane said in Thursday's decision.

"Failure to achieve that 'atmosphere' is not in the public interest, and the board expects and looks forward to a changed approach by MPI to its meeting its responsibilities with respect to that 'atmosphere.' Both MPI and this board are mandated to operate in the public interest, and MPI itself was established to work for the benefit of its insureds, Manitobans."

Swan said Thursday Manitobans should be pleased by the rebate and nothing was done by his office to circumvent the PUB process.

"As minister, I was actually very happy to find out that MPI, through better claims experience than anybody could have expected, had this money and was able to rebate it to ratepayers," he said. "And I'm very happy we have a public insurer so that this money goes back to Manitobans who pay premiums rather than out the door to shareholders in New York or Toronto or Paris or London."

MPI spokesman Dan Guimond, vice-president of strategy and innovation and chief information officer, said the $320-million rebate is the result of the actuarial review of the corporation's claims reserves by Ernst & Young. He said the excess of about $250 million was accumulated as part of the Personal Injury Protection Plan to provide for future costs arising from injured claimants.

The plan was adopted in 1994 and now, 17 years later, MPI has a better handle on what it needs to pay future injury claims, Guimond said. He said MPI built up that fund through premiums out of an abundance of caution, so it could meet future claims without suddenly raising premiums.

"It's a business," he said. "You have to be really, really careful. It's much easier to take a hit for returning money than guessing wrong."

Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said the size of the rebate shows MPI has been overcharging Manitobans for several years.

"It raises new questions about NDP political interference in MPI," he said. "Now that they're into an election year, they are attempting to bribe Manitobans with their own money."

CAA Manitoba spokeswoman Liz Peters said the rebate, and the PUB's strong words, mean more stable Autopac premiums.

"Maybe now we can move forward," she said. "We might not see rebates in the future, but it means we're not paying higher rates."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2011 A3

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