Filed Under:Markets, Regulation/Legislation

Florida’s Insurance Industry Not Assured of Success in 2011 Legislative Session

Florida lawmakers sauntered into the 2011 session promising to help businesses, end red tape and regulation, and revive the state’s economy.

The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature championed the idea of free markets at nearly every turn in the first few weeks of the 60-day session. However, so far it is clear that the insurance industry may not get everything it wants, even from a decidedly pro-business legislature.

A comprehensive property insurance bill intended to address cost drivers that affect the bottom line of insurers is moving—but not without much debate, controversy and changes pushed by those who say the measure is unfriendly to consumers.

Other insurance measures also may have a rough time getting to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott. These include legislation affecting Citizens Property Insurance Corp., bad faith laws, and an ambitious proposal to allow insurers to raise rates up to 30 percent a year without approval from state regulators.

Shifting Political Sands
This is not what the insurance industry expected.

“Over the last year the industry has benefited from hearing from the governor and legislative leaders who came through our conferences telling us that there was a new day in the Capitol,” said William Stander, assistant vice president and Florida regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“A more free-market pro-business legislature was going to be deciding the issues. And we were counting on that and pushing legislation that responds to that charge from them….But now we’ve got a challenge on our hands. It’s not going to be given to us. We’ve got to fight for it,” Stander said.

Many in the industry thought that the departure of Gov. Charlie Crist—who steadily bashed insurers during his four years in office and vetoed property insurance bills—would lead to legislative changes.

Scott, who says his number one goal is to revive the state’s economy, has called the need to reform Citizens the most pressing priority when it comes to property insurance. However, the governor has stopped short of endorsing any bills or coming forward with his own proposals. He also says he is generally supportive of changing how insurers deal with sinkholes.

New Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater—while steering clear of taking any firm sides—has cautioned that legislators should not go too far in giving insurers the ability to raise rates without approval from state regulators. Atwater has maintained that there must be a balance between what is good for insurers and what is good for consumers.

Meanwhile, there are groups out there who have stepped in to fight the insurance legislation—primarily the group that represents trial lawyers. It has been lobbying heavily to stop or at a minimum seriously alter some of the legislative proposals.

Sean Shaw, the insurance consumer advocate under CFO Alex Sink, has blasted many of the proposals under consideration. He agrees that the insurance market is still fragile, but he says there should be a more measured response.

“Can we approach this in a moderate approach and fix what’s wrong rather than give everything away to the industry in just one session?” Shaw asked.

Shaw is now with the Merlin Law Group, whose tagline is, “The Policyholder’s Advocate.”

Cost Drivers Being Discussed; SB 408 Battle Continues
The property insurance bill that has generated the most attention so far is a revival of a comprehensive property insurance measure that Crist vetoed last year.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and the sponsor of this year’s SB 408, has touted his legislation as a way to help the state’s fragile property insurance market by cutting some of the costs that affect the ability of insurers to do business in Florida.

The bill would put a three-year limit on when hurricane-related claims can be filed and it would lift a mandate that insurers offer sinkhole coverage, an area where claims have exploded in the last several years.

Richter’s bill also attempts to change state law regarding how much an insurer has to pay out for damages to a home and personal contents. However, that has proven to be one of the more controversial elements of the legislation and it may not be included in the final version of the bill.

Homeowners can purchase a policy that covers only the depreciated cash value of their home and possessions or they can pay for a policy that will require the insurance company to pay to replace everything regardless of how much it would cost. Richter’s bill would change how insurers pay policyholders with these replacement-cost policies.

His initial legislation called for paying the depreciated cash value; the homeowner would get the rest of what was owed upon completion of the repairs. Florida had a similar process in place until 2005 when legislators mandated the change amid an outcry following a series of hurricanes that hit the state.

Richter defends the change in law as a good public policy that ensures that homeowners actually repair their homes instead of using their insurance money for something else.

“If you didn’t want to fix your house, you want to buy a boat or go on a vacation, you may think that’s good, but I’m not sure your neighbor does,’’ Richter said.

The bill has drawn fire from ardent critics of the insurance industry such as Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Fasano insisted that it is unfair to force homeowners dealing with a fire or hurricane to dip into their pockets first in order to complete repairs.

Fasano has made similar criticisms of a proposal in Richter’s bill that would limit the initial payout for loss of personal contents.

Rate Hikes, Citizens, and SB 1330 Are in the Mix
Richter’s bill, however, is far from being the most substantial insurance bill under consideration this year. Florida lawmakers also have resurrected a bid to let insurers raise their rates without much interference from state regulators. This year’s version of the “deregulation” bill would let insurers raise their statewide average rates by 15 percent and individual policyholder rates by as much as 30 percent a year.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and the sponsor of SB 1330, contends that the legislation is about giving consumers the choice to decide if they want to pay more in premiums in order to keep their coverage with the same company.

“I think it’s an insult to the consumers of this state for us to try to tell them they are not smart enough to make a choice to buy a policy that would be allowed under this bill,’’ Hays said.

Some legislators have agreed with Hays’ arguments, saying that the wave of previous changes the last few years have done little to restore the state’s insurance market.

“What we are doing is not working; we continue to do the same thing over and over again,” said Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.

Crist vetoed a deregulation bill back in 2009, saying it would harm consumers. That bill limited the types of companies that could raise their rates without approval from regulators to companies that were well capitalized. This year’s bill does not include that provision. However, the legislation says any company that chooses to seek rates under this new “alternative” method would have to have enough surplus or reinsurance on hand by 2015 to cover claims caused by a truly devastating hurricane.

Hays also is the sponsor of a bill that would allow Citizens to raise its rates as much as 25

percent a year. He said the measure will force the state-created carrier to shrink in size. Citizens has 1.29 million policyholders across the state, including most homeowners who live along the state’s vulnerable coastlines. Lawmakers four years ago made changes to Citizens to make it more competitive with private insurers that were either raising rates or pulling out of the state completely in the wake of eight hurricanes in two years. Initially, lawmakers froze rates for Citizens, but then gave the carrier the ability to raise rates up to 10 percent a year for policyholders.

“Ultimately what I’m trying to accomplish is to get the state of Florida out of the insurance business and return Citizens to being the insurer of last resort,’’ Hays said.

Hays said that removing the current 10 percent cap would “accelerate the timeline in which Citizens would become healthy.” His bill would also make homeowners ineligible for Citizens coverage if they can get a policy from a private carrier that charges up to 25 percent more than Citizens.

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