CFO Alex Sink's Consumer eViews NewsletterFLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
ALEX SINK'S NEWSLETTER

Volume 7 Number 1 January 1, 2010

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Dear Floridian:

As we enter the new year, our state faces significant challenges, but reflecting on some of our accomplishments in 2009 gives me motivation moving forward. Right here in our Department of Financial Services, we’ve been cutting wasteful spending, cracking down on fraud, and helping to hold government more accountable.

In 2009, our Department was able to cut millions of dollars in wasteful spending, with actions like consolidating our state’s call centers, renegotiating our contracts, and looking for ways to lower cell phone bills. We brought more accountability and transparency to state government by launching Florida’s Checkbook, a web site that allows Floridians to easily see how their tax dollars are being spent. And through our workshops to help seniors and Florida’s homeowners, and the diligence of our insurance fraud investigators, we have made sure that Florida’s citizens are helped and protected in so many ways.

We could not have achieved these successes without the hard work of the people who serve our state at the Department of Financial Services, and I can’t thank them enough. I look forward to building on this work in 2010!

Wishing you a Happy New Year,

Alex Sink
CFO
State of Florida


CFO Sink calls foreclosure order 'important step' to help Florida homeowners

Florida CFO Alex Sink today commended the Florida Supreme Court order recommending a statewide managed mediation program for Florida’s homeowners. Given her previous work to aid Floridians struggling with foreclosure, CFO Sink was tapped by Chief Justice Peggy Quince to provide a delegate on the Task Force that developed these recommendations.

“With Florida facing the worst foreclosure crisis in the nation, our state must take meaningful action to help Floridians stay in their homes, and I commend the work of the Task Force and Supreme Court,” said CFO Sink. “Requiring a uniform mediation program is an important step to improve communication between homeowners and their lenders, something vitally important as we work to provide real relief to struggling residents.”

CFO Sink has started two initiatives to bring real, tangible help to Florida homeowners facing foreclosure, including the Florida Housing Help initiative that holds workshops for homeowners across the state. In 2009, CFO Sink’s Department of Financial Services held 79 Florida Housing Help workshops across Florida, helping more than 12,000 Florida homeowners connect with their lenders or housing counselors.

CFO Sink also called for the creation of the Florida Attorneys Saving Homes program, which pairs volunteer lawyers with Florida homeowners who are behind on their mortgage payments, to help these homeowners try and find solutions with their lenders. Over 1,000 lawyers across the state have volunteered their time for the program.

Details on CFO Sink’s work to help Florida’s homeowners and a calendar of upcoming Florida Housing Help workshops can be found at: http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/FloridaHousingHelp.


CFO Sink offers helpful money management tips to help keep New Year's resolutions

With a new year around the corner, many Floridians will be making resolutions to improve their lives. Florida CFO Alex Sink recommends including resolutions to take control of your family’s finances and better manage your money.

"The key to sticking with a New Year’s resolution is to have a plan and to follow through,” said CFO Sink. “By thoroughly reviewing your finances and following some easy tips, you can better manage your family’s budget and keep more of your hard-earned money in your pocket.”

CFO Sink offered the following advice to help Floridians keep those money management resolutions, especially when it comes to your insurance coverage:

Develop a personal financial plan – When putting together your personal financial plan you want to be sure to include a savings plan. First, take a look at your daily spending habits. Once you determine how much money you can save each week or month, change your habits and plan on setting up your own Individual Retirement Account or other personal retirement account, like a 401(k), that will not be taxed until you choose to begin drawing the money out. Remember the best rule of saving: Pay yourself first!

Evaluate Your Insurance Coverage –You may not realize this, but it is your responsibility to make sure your insurance coverage is adequate. Contact your insurance agent and make an appointment to discuss each coverage and provision of your policy. You may need to add or change a vehicle on your auto policy or you may have added an addition on your home. If so, your policy must be adequate to cover such changes or additions. Please keep in mind that the coverage must be in place BEFORE any loss occurs, giving even more credence to an insurance evaluation as a new year’s resolution. Another plus is that you may lower your premium payments by increasing deductibles and/or reducing coverage!

Shop Around – To get the most out of your money, shop around for the best price and coverage. Every insurance company has different rates based on their experience and other factors. By shopping around for the best deal, you may save hundreds or even thousands of premium dollars. However, always work with a Florida-licensed company, and be sure to compare apples-to-apples when shopping for coverage.

Verify Before You Buy – You’ve worked hard for the money you are going to invest, or put into an insurance policy, so take a few extra moments to make sure the people investing your money or seeking to sell you insurance are licensed by logging on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com or calling our Consumer Helpline. Also, make sure you understand all of the risks involved before making any investment: ask questions, take notes, and get a prospectus. For an insurance policy, check the financial status of the company issuing the policy. Remember, verify every time!

Protect Your Identity – Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country affecting an estimated 10 million consumers in the last year. If your identity is stolen, restoring it can be a tedious process, often taking months or even years to restore. Identity theft insurance is an option, but your resolution should include breaking old habits that may lead to you being affected by this crime.

Ask for Help – If you don’t understand a policy, a term you are hearing, or what kind of coverage you need, ask for help. The Department offers an array of services on line including Consumer Help Online, an Insurance Library, and numerous consumer brochures. If your family is struggling to keep up with the mortgage, or is facing foreclosure, you can find help at one of CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help workshops. Consumers can also sign up for CFO Sink’s weekly electronic newsletter to keep informed on the latest news and financial tips. Information and assistance are available to help you make the best decisions for you and your family.

CFO Sink urged consumers to visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com or attend one of her community outreach programs to learn more money management tips. For more information, Floridians can also call CFO Sink’s insurance consumer helpline at 1-877-My-FL-CFO (877-693-5236) or (850) 413-3089.


Ft. Myers bail bond agency owner arrested for hiring convicted felon

Bail Bond Agency Employee with Felony Record Also Charged

Florida CFO Alex Sink last week announced the arrests of Melody Celec, owner of A Way Out Bail Bonds, and Jamie Ramirez, her employee, after it was discovered that Ramirez had a previous felony conviction, yet was working at the Ft. Myers bail bond agency. CFO Sink’s Division of Insurance Fraud arrested Ramirez on Monday for working in a bail bond agency with a felony conviction and arrested Celec last week for knowingly employing a convicted felon.

Ramirez, 35, worked for the bail bond agency after her February 2008 felony plea, conducting administrative work in the office, which did not require a license. The Division of Insurance Fraud received a tip that Celec had an employee with a criminal record.

Celec was arrested for knowingly violating Florida law, which states that a convicted felon may not act in any capacity for a bail bond agency. She turned herself in to the Lee County Jail on December 16, 2009, and has since bonded out. If convicted, Celec will be barred for life to hold a bail bond agent license, or have any involvement at any bail bond agency in Florida.

Ramirez was arrested on two charges of unlawful employment at a bail bond agency and providing false information to Insurance Fraud detectives when interviewed. Ramirez was picked up on December 21, 2009 by the Ft. Myers Police Department and taken to the Lee County Jail where she currently is being held.

CFO Sink’s Division of Insurance Fraud made over 800 insurance fraud-related arrests in the last fiscal year, and investigates various forms of insurance fraud relating to health, life, auto, property and workers’ compensation insurance policies. Depending on the estimated loss amount, the Department of Financial Services will pay up to $25,000 for information directly leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information about this or any other suspected insurance fraud is asked to call CFO Sink’s Fraud Fighters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445 or visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com/fraud.


What is mental health parity and when does it begin?

By Sean M. Shaw, Esq., Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate

For several years, professionals and advocates in the mental health and substance abuse community have championed changes in the way insurance companies administer these benefits. Their efforts were rewarded in 2008 when the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bush on October 3, 2008. Congress delayed the effective date of this new law until January of 2010 in order to give health plans time to implement the changes. This new law expands on the limited Mental Health Parity Act of 1996.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act amends the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Public Health Service Act to prohibit employers’ health plans from imposing any caps or limitations on mental health treatment or substance abuse benefits that aren’t currently applied to medical and surgical benefits. This law requires that insurers treat mental health and substance abuse benefits the same as medical-surgical benefits.

Unfortunately, this act does not require health insurance plans to offer mental health and substance abuse coverage. However, those plans that do offer these benefits are required to do so in an equitable fashion. Additionally, the new law applies primarily to large group plans, those with 51 employees or more. For large group health plans that include mental health and substance abuse disorder benefits, the Act does require parity with medical - surgical benefits. The new law will allow plans that provide mental health and substance abuse benefits to be exempt from the federal law if it can demonstrate actuarially that implementing parity has increased costs by more than two percent in the first year or one percent in subsequent years. Continue reading here.


Florida Housing Help continues in 2010

Many people are looking to the New Year to make a fresh start.

Some homeowners are dealing with the stress of making their mortgage payments in a time when many families are trying to rebuild their financial footing. If you are a homeowner struggling to make your mortgage payments, you don’t have to be in foreclosure to receive help at a Florida Housing Help workshop.

CFO Sink has offered Florida Housing Help workshops to over 12,000 homeowners in 2009 and plans to keep up the effort in 2010.

Florida Housing Help workshops are designed to bring lenders and homeowners to the table to work out a solution and avoid the foreclosure process. Many people find that by coming to a Housing Help workshop, their financial stresses are relieved.

Details on CFO Sink’s work to help Florida’s homeowners and a calendar of upcoming Florida Housing Help events can be found at: http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/FloridaHousingHelp.

Upcoming Florida Housing Help events:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at Cooperative Extension Service, Clayton Hutcheson Agricultural Services Center, 559 North Military Trail, West Palm Beach.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010, from 5:00-8:00 p.m. at the Joseph P. D’Alessandro Office Complex, 2295 Victoria Ave., Fort Myers.

Saturday, January 23, 2010, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at The University Area Community Development Center, 14013 North 22nd Street, Tampa.

Saturday, January 23, 2010, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Deltona City Hall, 2345 Providence Blvd., Deltona.


New law requires Fire-Safe Cigarettes by January 1, 2010

In March of 2006, the Coalition of Fire-Safe Cigarettes kicked off its national campaign for fire-safe cigarettes, calling for cigarette manufacturers to immediately start producing and marketing only cigarettes that would adhere to an established fire safety performance standard. The campaign also addressed every state in the country, urging their participation to actively work on legislation for fire-safe cigarettes in order to save lives and prevent fires and injuries.

After years of testing and talking to thousands of people including legislators, cigarette manufacturers, fire service organizations, medical groups, and many other heavily involved participants, the fire-safe cigarette concept was embraced and created.

Experts created a cigarette that would burn less when left unattended. It was determined that the most common fire-safe technology to use by cigarette manufacturers would be to wrap cigarettes with two or three thin bands of less-porous paper that would slow down a burning cigarette and ultimately self-extinguish.

In 2008, the Florida legislature passed the Reduced Cigarette Ignition Propensity Standard and Firefighter Protection Act (Florida State Statute 633.042), mandating that cigarettes sold in Florida on or after January 1, 2010, must meet specific requirements modeled after New York’s legislation, which was the first state to pass fire-safe cigarette legislation in 2004.

As part Florida's legislation, State Fire Marshal Sink's Division of State Fire Marshal, along with the Office of Attorney General, Department of Business & Professional Regulation’s Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other local law enforcement agencies, will have the authority to enforce use of fire-safe cigarettes. The State Fire Marshal Sink’s office will have the authority to conduct testing to determine the cigarette meets the compliance measures and provide written certification.

“The use of fire-safe cigarettes has the ability to reduce cigarette-related fires by 75 percent,” said Bureau of Fire & Prevention Chief Jim Goodloe. “The new cigarette is made with rows of speed bumps that add paper between tobacco layers to allow the cigarette to extinguish on its own.”

As statistics show, cigarette-ignited fires are the leading cause of residential fire deaths. Each year in this country, 700 to 900 people die in cigarette-ignited fires. One quarter of those people killed – often including children and the elderly – are not the smoker. Fire-safe cigarettes have been designed to self-extinguish if dropped or left unattended and are less likely to ignite clothing, bedding or other material. For more information on fire-safe cigarettes visit www.firesafecigarettes.org.


Consumer Corner: Protect your income, protect your business

Business income protection provides a business with a stream of income following a major loss. Without an income stream, employees and bills don’t get paid. And with no income or source of surplus capital, the business risks losing employees and business finances may suffer.

It is estimated that 75 percent of Florida’s businesses that suffer catastrophic loss that causes temporary closure never reopen.

To make sure your business is not included in that 75 percent, start the New Year off by consulting a commercial general insurance agent and making sure coverage is adequate to carry the business until normal operations are resumed after a major loss. Also, get a list of the documentation the insurance company is going to request in the event of a loss that causes business income loss, items like: the previous year's federal corporate income tax return, invoices showing monthly equipment rental or leasing, monthly profit and loss statements, payroll journals, and quarterly payroll tax returns.

The above-mentioned items may or may not be items an insurance company will request; however, having the documentation may make the claims process less stressful and help get the claim paid correctly.


My Family CFO: Resolve to save and invest more in 2010

Many Americans seem to make the same New Year resolution each year. Recent polls show that more than 50 percent of Americans resolve to appreciate loved ones and spend more time with family and friends this year. Getting fit also ranks high up in the list each year.

While health-related and family resolutions remain strong for 2010, financial resolutions have become very popular, with 75 percent of respondents planning to make at least one financial-related resolution in 2010.

Of respondents who plan to make a finance-related New Year’s resolution in 2010:

In addition, the poll determined these statistics:

Most people who made a resolution about their personal finances last year stuck with it – 60 percent are still going strong - so you should be confident making a finance-related resolution in 2010.

These results are based on a survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, NJ, on behalf of TD AMERITRADE.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's Consumer eViews 1-877-MY-FL-CFO