By News Service of Florida, Palm Beach Post
July 21, 2011
TALLAHASSEE— Cracking down on automobile insurance fraud and strengthening the property insurance market will help consumers in the long run and be at the top of her priority list, the state's newest insurance consumer advocate said Thursday.
Shortly after she was officially named Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate, Robin Westcott said the health of the market is directly linked to consumer satisfaction and protection, a relationship she will weigh as the state's top consumer advocate, a delicate and sometimes adversarial role that has pitted former advocates against the industry and the Legislature.
While property insurance rates are important and continue to make headlines, Westcott says she'll be looking beyond rates to make sure consumers are protected from shoddy companies and criminals trying to exploit the system.
"I don't know that I will be second guessing the actuaries at the Office of Insurance Regulation too often. They are very competent," Westcott said Thursday. "I think the consumer advocate's office needs to be looking at what do we do about these markets because the rates are not going to go down until we have a good, competitive market place for our citizens."
Westcott said an immediate priority will be trying to rein in personal injury protection fraud that industry representatives say is running rampant and costing law abiding automobile insurance policyholders millions in higher premiums because of staged crashes and bogus medical claims.
Lawmakers were unsuccessful in passing meaningful PIP legislation this past session, a lack of progress that is testament to the complexities of the issues including questions of court access, clinic accountability and attorney fees.
"There are things we can do to protect consumers and make sure that we are fraud resistant," Westcott said. "It's very critical because we don't want to see our auto market devolve into what our property market is."
Appointed by State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Westcott has been Department of Financial Services' executive director of Medicaid and Public Assistance Fraud Strike Force.
"Robin will be an ardent, outspoken and persistent advocate for Florida's insurance consumers," Atwater said in a statement. "She is committed to holding insurance companies accountable and to ensuring consumers get exactly what they pay for and are protected from fraud and abuse. She has seen firsthand the tactics used to game the system and simply won't stand for it."
Her lengthy resume includes four years as the director of property and casualty oversight at the Office of Insurance Regulation, where she also served as an acting deputy commissioner.
Among her more recent duties was spearheading an OIR look at sinkhole claims, which have exploded in recent years.
Her background also includes a long stint as an attorney with the Division of Rehabilitation and Liquidation, where she dealt with insolvency and other matters.
"She has an incredibly broad background with very high, very hands-on regulation of the insurance industry," said Sam Miller, executive vice president of Florida Insurance Council, an industry group.
Westcott said she believes that consumers benefit most when the private market offers viable options, a situation that does not always exist, especially in terms of Florida's property insurance market. Though she will defer to OIR on most rate decisions, she said the timing of rate hikes is also critical as homeowners adjust to the rising costs of insuring their homes.
Toward that end, she supports efforts to drawn down the number of policyholders in Citizens Property Insurance Corp. which is the largest property insurer in the state with 1.4 million policies in place. Long term, Citizens ranks can only be reduced if national companies return to the Florida market. And that can only happen if large insurers return to the basic tenet of insurance, reducing the cost of individual losses by spreading out the risk.
Admittedly a long process, Westcott said recent calamities in other parts of the country may make the idea of risk sharing more palatable.
"It's not a valid argument to say that Florida stands alone in bearing all the risk for insurance peril," Westcott said. "We need to be standing united and the companies need to come back and spread the risk. I'm a really purist in that sense."