Preferred provider: Who to call when a tree falls

On the night of August 27, during a thunderstorm Donna DeGroat describes as "furious," an 80-foot white pine fell almost parallel to one side of her house. A gate was destroyed, and a fence, some guttering, and one part of the roof were damaged.

When DeGroat reported the incident to State Farm at 5am on August 28, Hurricane Isabel was still three weeks away. Plenty of time to repair that kind of damage, right? Think again.

DeGroat had the tree removed, but claims she didn't see an insurance adjuster until September 10– even though she says she called the claims agent she'd been assigned to, Jonathan Jones, "several times." By then, 12 days had elapsed, and Isabel was only nine days away.

DeGroat agreed to use State Farm's "Premier Service" plan, which, as Jones stated in a letter he wrote her on September 16, "is designed to enhance our claims service"; State Farm's website asserts that the Premier Service plan will "help you get your damaged building properly repaired."

Under the plan, the policyholder chooses from a list of participating contractors, and State Farm then notifies the contractor. The contractor provides an estimate, and the policyholder authorizes the contractor to begin the work. State Farm pays the contractor directly, minus any deductible, and repairs are covered by a five-year warranty.

The alternative is for State Farm to simply issue a check based on their estimate of the damage, after which the policyholder is on his or her own. Premium Service purports to save headaches, time, and possibly money; participating contractors can get certain materials at a discount. DeGroat, however, now believes that she might have done better without Premier Service.

According to DeGroat, the firm that Jones suggested that she use was ARCAM Construction of Waynesboro. She says ARCAM made plans to inspect the damage, but cancelled on three different occasions.

Isabel blew through Virginia on September 18. Suddenly, compared to what happened to many homeowners, DeGroat's late-August damage seemed pretty modest. DeGroat claims she called ARCAM numerous times, only to be told "You're pretty much low priority– other claims are bumping you down."

In the end, DeGroat ditched Premier Service, accepted a check from State Farm, and set out on her own to find a contractor. If she'd done that in late August, of course, the repairs might have been history by the time Isabel hit. As it is, three months have gone by– and she's still waiting.

"One of my concerns," she writes, "is that with all this time passing, additional damage may have occurred. This may come to haunt me if the estimate from [the new contractor] is much higher than the initial State Farm quote."

When I spoke with Courtney Lowe in State Farm public relations, I was struck by the fact that as soon as I mentioned the Premier Service plan, Lowe immediately said, "These people are not employed by State Farm." I have to wonder: If the plan's everything it's cracked up to be, why would State Farm be so quick to distance itself from participating contractors?

When I talked to Mary Beth Kramer, a spokeswoman in the Charlottesville regional office, I asked whether anyone at State Farm had followed up on DeGroat's complaints. She later reported that the situation had indeed been investigated, and ARCAM remains on State Farm's list as a "preferred provider."

As for ARCAM, I called on Friday, November 21, and was told that I would not be able to speak with Wayne, the employee DeGroat had dealt with. Instead, I was told to speak with the president, Lanny Campbell, who would be back the following Tuesday. When I called on the appointed day, however, the woman who answered the phone said Campbell "had nothing to say at all." When I tried to check the spelling of his name, she hung up on me.

Perhaps phone manners aren't a requirement for staying on State Farm's list.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.