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Citizens changes produce sharp rise in complaints

3/3/2012

By: Paul Owers

Sun Sentinel

Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which covers nearly one of every four Floridians, has been making some of them very unhappy.

 Last year, the state Division of Consumer Services fielded 2,025 complaints mentioning state-run Citizens, a 27 percent increase from the year before. Complaints that name any other home insurer in Florida declined by 11 percent over the same period.

 Robin Westcott, the state's insurance consumer advocate, said she's noticed escalating tension between Citizens and its customers. When told their premiums are increasing because of new priorities from Gov. Rick Scott and Florida lawmakers, policyholders get particularly upset.

 "It's surprise and complete frustration," Westcott said.

 Lane Wright, Scott's press secretary, said in an email that the governor is making the tough decision to return Citizens to a smaller insurer of last resort.

 He said critics of a downsized Citizens shouldn't be angry at the governor.

 "No one likes to pay higher rates. I get that," Wright wrote. "But if people have angst towards Gov. Scott over the matter ... those feelings are misdirected. ... They should be upset at those who kicked the can down the road and refused to begin addressing a problem that will be financially devastating to this state if a major hurricane does hit."

 Citizens has been lowering coverage and raising premiums after Scott called its power to levy post-storm assessments a threat to Florida's economy.

 All policyholders in the state may be charged up to 6 percent of their annual premiums if Citizens lacks money to pay claims after a storm. Citizens' 1.5 million policyholders would pay first and could pay the most - up to 45 percent of their premiums.

 The assessments could cost Citizens policyholders an extra $1,100 each in a worst-case scenario.

 In a policy address last November, Scott asked the Citizens board to come up with a goal to reduce Floridians' exposure.

 Complaints about Citizens started before that meeting, but frustrations have mounted since then.

 Westcott said policyholders worry Citizens is inflating the replacement cost of their homes, which raises premiums.

 Also drawing their ire is a program that tightens eligibility for discounts that Citizens grants for windstorm protection measures, such as shutters.

 In February, those two concerns led Florida homeowners, including a Pembroke Pines man, to file separate lawsuits seeking to ban Citizens from continuing the practices.

 Beyond those issues, Citizens has cut its maximum coverage limit to $1 million from $2 million for homes and condominiums. The insurer also is raising rates for many high-rise condos in South Florida by 21 percent. Also, Citizens no longer offers coverage for such things as awnings, most carports and screened-in pool enclosures.

 The reduction in coverage prompted Kevin Roth, an Oakland Park homeowner and folk singer, to write a song last month blasting Citizens and post the video on YouTube. The song says the insurer is a "rip-off of the poor" and should change its name to "Citi Sin."

 "There will be a major outrage after the next storm," Roth, 54, said last week. "I'm afraid of growing old and not being able to afford it."

 A spokeswoman for Citizens could not be reached for comment, despite attempts by phone and email. The Office of Insurance Regulation said Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty was not available for an interview.

 In a statement, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater declined to address the rising number of complaints against Citizens. He said the state must create the conditions that allow the private sector to compete for insurance policies.

 Sen. Mike Fasano, who's active in insurance issues, said the recent outrage shows the governor is moving too fast for most homeowners.

 Scott's demand that Citizens shrink is unreasonable because private insurers are still gun-shy about doing business in Florida, said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. He added that many private carriers feel Florida's insurance rates are too low for the risks they have to assume.

 "The private companies aren't writing policies because they can't charge what they want to charge," Fasano said. "The governor needs to understand that you cannot all of a sudden change the rules in the middle of the game."