By Paige St. John, Herald-Tribune
June 23, 2011
State officials have quietly pulled the plug on a consumer-friendly website that was the sole resource for homeowners comparison shopping for the best property insurance rates.
Though they differ on the reason for taking down the site, spokesmen for Gov. Rick Scott and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty say shopandcomparerates.com was temporarily unplugged this spring for "updates and enhancements."
It has remained offline ever since.
State officials promise they will restore the comparison shopping tool soon, but they would not say when.
"We don't have a specific date set for that at this time," said Lane Wright, the governor's press secretary.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist started the site in 2007 amid a campaign to pressure insurance companies to lower their rates.
The site allowed homeowners to compare the average rates in their county charged by individual insurers for two different styles of house.
It was the only public tool to check insurance rates, in a state where nearly 4,000 insurance policies are dropped each day, and more than 100,000 homeowners sign a new policy each month.
Bill Newton, director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, lamented the loss of the comparison website this week.
"I guess consumers are on their own, no help from the government," he said. "You can decide from advertising which company is best."
The site disappeared amid passage of legislation that allowed large rate increases and laws that reduce policyholder rights. Consumer advocates and even some lawmakers called the new laws a gift to the insurance industry that came at the expense of Florida homeowners.
Also this spring, lawmakers killed a never-published public report card that graded property insurers on how fast they pay claims and by the number of consumer complaints they rack up. A draft obtained by the Herald-Tribune showed one third of insurers in Florida scored low marks.
Scott's office only publicly acknowledged the disappearance of the comparison shopping site after a Herald-Tribune reporter this week questioned its whereabouts.
Scott's press secretary said the governor's office took down the site because regulators were not updating it to keep pace with rate increases and because it had been branded by his predecessor. At the time of its demise, the site still bore the former governor's name and signature.
Would-be insurance shoppers as of Wednesday were automatically bounced to a state website featuring Scott's latest accomplishments.
Consumer visits to the site peaked at 12,000 a month in 2010 but waned when Scott took office and removed a link to the website from the state's main homepage. According to a private monitoring service, Compete, traffic was rising sharply by the end of March when the plug was pulled.
Scott's press secretary said responsibility to update and relaunch the comparison shopping site now shifts to the Office of Insurance Regulation. OIR spokesman Jack McDermott could not provide details or documentation about the decision to take down the existing site, saying everything had been handled verbally.
Insurance Consumer Advocate Terry Butler said the website had been a "valuable tool for consumers" that no longer allows him to counter insurers' claims that state-run Citizens Property Insurance is undercutting the private market and must dramatically raise its rates.
"I also wanted to use it to show that many insurers do have lower (home insurance) rates than Citizens in every county in Florida," Butler said. "Of course, that doesn't mean they will actually sell insurance to anyone."
The site is the second web initiative created by Crist that Scott has iced. In March, Scott eliminated a website that detailed spending of $24 billion in federal stimulus grants. His staff said the governor felt the site promoted a program he opposes.