Legislators could save themselves and Floridians a lot of time and trouble by
taking one basic step: Require small, private insurers to meet financial
standards that would make them at least as reliable as Citizens.
Unfortunately, that simple step doesn't appear to be under consideration in the
upcoming legislative session, which gets under way March 5.
Instead, state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the Senate
Insurance and Banking Committee, is leading a push to raise Citizens' rates
faster than now allowed by law, and to tighten requirements for homeowners
Caps or hikes?
Simmons' counterpart in the Florida House, Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, said
last week that he would consider increasing Citizens' 10 percent cap on annual
rate increases to 13 percent.
Meanwhile, two Miami Republicans, Sen. Anitere Flores and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz,
have introduced bills that would strengthen the current cap.
Last year, Citizens' administrators considered allowing larger rate increases
for new customers while maintaining the 10 percent cap for current policies. But
they dropped the idea when some state officials questioned its legality.
Flores' and Diaz's bills would make it clear that the 10 percent cap applies to
Simmons and Nelson will try to persuade their colleagues that bigger and faster
rate hikes are needed to force policyholders out of Citizens and into private
They warn -- as legislative leaders, Gov. Rick Scott and Citizens administrators
have before -- that Citizens, the state's largest property insurer, is too big
and won't be able to cover its claims in the event that a major hurricane
strikes. If it can't, all Florida policyholders -- whether Citizens clients or
not -- will be assessed to make up the difference.
But what the rate-hikers neglect to say is that the same assessment would be
imposed if a private insurer fails.
In fact, it already is being imposed.
As the Herald-Tribune's Zac Anderson has reported, in 2011 Tampa-based Homewise
Insurance became "at least the eighth Florida property insurer to become
insolvent since 2004" -- the 11th if you count multiple insurers under one
holding company that failed.
As a result of the Homewise failure, all insurance policyholders statewide face
a 1 percent rate increase this year -- an average of $20 per homeowner -- to
cover the private insurer's $142 million in unpaid claims.
And future bailouts of private insurers appear much more likely than a so-called
"hurricane tax" to help Citizens.
The state's Office of the Insurance Consumer Advocate found last year that
numerous small, undercapitalized private insurers operating in Florida would be
"as much or more of a financial risk" than Citizens in the event of a hurricane.
Why Citizens exists
Major insurers, which began pulling out of Florida or reducing their exposure
after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, show no inclination to expand coverage, even
though rates have increased substantially. The lack of available, reliable
coverage led the Legislature to create Citizens in the first place.
Yet, state officials and the Legislature continue to try to push policyholders
out of the Citizens. They've raised rates, reduced coverage, even offered to
lend private insurers $350 million to encourage them to take on new customers.
Those efforts have largely failed. Citizens has announced that it ended last
year down only 9 percent from a record high number of policies.
Maybe the policyholders understand something that legislators don't seem to
grasp: The weakened public insurer is still stronger than undercapitalized
It was no surprise that Citizens President Barry Gilway eventually decided to
drop the controversial loan program, stating, "I seriously doubt, even if the
... program would proceed, that we would have any real takers that meet the
financial requirements that we believe would be necessary."
That failure to "meet the financial requirements" is a clear indication that the
state needs to focus not on reducing the number of Citizens policyholders but on
raising the standards for private insurers.