A Trio of Insurance Bills Await Action as Florida Session Nears End

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida lawmakers might wonder if they're on a merry-go-round when it comes getting a handle on insurance costs in the state, whether for cars or homes. For the better part of a couple decades, they've gone round and round on the issue while their constituents pay higher and higher premiums.

This year appears to be no different with three major insurance bills awaiting action in the final four days of the 2012 legislative session, including one that is a priority of Gov. Rick Scott.

"They're all equally important," said Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who chairs the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. "We have to address the risk to Florida ... on multiple fronts."

Things got off to a rough start Monday when the Senate's attempt to depopulate the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. by allowing out-of-state, unregulated insurers to pick off some of its customers ran into a whirlwind of amendments aimed at protecting consumers, potentially derailing that bill (HB 245).

Lawmakers spent two hours on Richter's bill, arguing much of that time over an amendment by Sen. Thad Altman that gives CPIC customers an opportunity to opt in with a new company — in this case, largely unregulated insurers from outside Florida known as surplus line carriers.

Altman's amendment prevailed on a 21-18 vote and also requires that consumers receive a detailed written explanation in the difference between companies.

"That was probably the most pro-consumer amendment that could've been adopted," said Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican maverick from New Port Richey who has led the charge to defeat the bill in its original form.  "We're all for depopulating Citizens, but you don't depopulate by deceiving the rate payers."

Richter argued the changes to his bill will keep those outside companies from coming into Florida.

"It kills the intent of the legislation," Richter said.

"It's an up and down vote," Senate President Mike Haridopolos said after Monday's somewhat turbulent session. "It's a close vote. Some people might change their minds."

The Legislature created Citizens Property Insurance Corp. a decade ago with the intent of providing an affordable, last-resort option for consumers left in the lurch when private carriers began pulling back from Florida's hurricane-threatened marketplace. Now they're desperate to shrink Citizens, which has rocketed from a last option to the state's largest property insurer with more than 1.4 million customers. The company would be hard pressed to even address damages much less pay claims in the event of a catastrophic storm.

Christine Ashburn, a spokeswoman for Citizens, said 44,000 policies were being taken out of the state-backed insurer's book of business on Tuesday.

Lawmakers have introduced other legislation to reduce the exposure of the government-run Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. Another bill that is the priority of the governor would make changes to the state's no-fault insurance laws to put the brakes on the runaway fraud on the required Personal Injury Protection (PIP). It's estimated that PIP fraud costs drivers more than $1 billion annually.

The House and Senate have different bills on the PIP issue and Haridopolos wasn't sure they would be resolved before Friday's scheduled adjournment.

"If we can't get it done this week, I'm happy to come back," he said.

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