One South Florida lawmaker calls the company’s handling of the plan “reckless”
and questions whether state-run Citizens is acting under the influence of
industry lobbyists. The company’s president defends it as a smart way to shrink
the company and reduce the risk of assessments to all insurance customers.
But existing “depopulation” plans are already working without questionable
incentives, contends state Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami. More than 200,000
policies have been approved for transfer to private insurers, potentially
shrinking Citizens, the state’s largest property insurer with 1.4 million
customers, by the largest amount in four years.
Many Citizens customers will receive notice this month of takeout programs that
give them a choice to stay with the state-run insurer or go with a private
carrier. Artiles said he understands another 50,000 to 100,000 customers may
receive takeout options in December without incentives. Citizens is the largest
property insurer in Palm Beach County with about 140,000 customers.
The incentive program targets up to 300,000 Citizens customers, but with a $350
million sweetener for participating insurers. Artiles questions the need for
20-year loans that are forgiven by 20 percent each year a hurricane hits
anywhere in the state.
“In short, you are well on your way to accomplish your goal of 300,000 customers
by year’s end, and you do not need to give away $350 million to do so,” Artiles
wrote in a Sept. 28 letter to Citizens president Barry Gilway.
The incentive program “needs to include safeguards to ensure that Citizens is
not wasting money to remove a policy that someone else will take for free,”
Artiles wrote. “It appears that Citizens has been heavily influenced by
lobbyists, as there is no rational explanation for such glaring violations of
your fiduciary responsibilities to Floridians.”
For its part, a prominent business lobby group says there’s no time to waste in
carrying out the incentive plan.
“The financial black cloud that hangs over every Floridian and all of our
businesses is dark and getting darker,” said Tom Feeney, president and CEO of
Associated Industries of Florida, in a statement that warned of assessment risk.
But skeptics see it as another attempt by private financial interests to get at
the $6 billion Citizens surplus — that’s accumulated money paid by ratepayers
that acts as a cushion to pay claims.
The company entered the 2012 season with projections it could handle a repeat of
the 2004 or 2005 seasons, for instance, without assessments. Some have
questioned why Citizens has spent $280 million on expensive private reinsurance,
for example, with a less than 3 percent chance it would be used in the two-year
The Citizens board has approved the $350 million plan in concept but details are
expected to come under scrutiny at a company depopulation committee meeting
Tuesday and a board meeting Oct.19.
Citizens president Gilway said the plan is well worth the money because it
reduces company’s risk exposure. The plan requires insurers to keep Citizens
customers for 10 years and not raise rates more than 10 percent for three years.
“This program works to the benefit of not only Citizens policyholders but all
Florida taxpayers,” Gilway wrote to Artiles Sept. 19.
State insurance consumer advocate Robin Westcott said the programs can amount to
“free reinsurance” for private carriers. On Monday she urged Citizens to
consider a range of factors before moving ahead.
Meanwhile, a Citizens spokeswoman said Tuesday the company was pleased
regulators had approved a 10.8 percent average annual rate increase and endorsed
a “measured approach to achieving sound rates.”
Consumer advocates were not so pleased, contending the annual increase is only
one way Citizens is raising bills.
“This isn’t just a rate hike of more than 10 percent, it’s a rate hike of more
than 10 percent after Citizens changed the rules — taking away mitigation
discounts, reducing coverage, and changing replacement values,” said Sean Shaw,
founder of Policyholders of Florida. “Citizens is getting away with charging
more for less, and policyholders and our economy are worse off because of it.”