FLORIDA CFO ALEX SINK'S CONSUMER EVIEWS NEWSLETTER

Volume 7 Number 27 July 2, 2010

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Dear Floridian:

Legislative reforms I fought for to better protect Florida taxpayers and strengthen oversight of our State Board of Administration went into effect this week. These reforms provide more transparency and accountability in state contracting, and also make improvements to the management of the pension fund that our teachers and firefighters depend on.

Also on Thursday, our Department of Financial Services’ Agent and Agency division began allowing agents to print their licenses from a secured website, which will save Florida taxpayers $420,000 annually.

I will continue to be your fiscal watchdog looking for ways that we can protect and save taxpayer dollars.

Have a fun and safe holiday weekend!

Sincerely,

Alex Sink
CFO
State of Florida


Emergency Managers and CFO Sink Urge 4th of July Fireworks Safety

Florida CFO and State Fire Marshal Alex Sink held a press conference to encourage Floridians to put safety first as they celebrate this Fourth of July. CFO Sink was joined at the press conference by Tallahassee Fire Chief Cindy Dick and local firefighters, State Fire Marshal Division Director Julius Halas, and State Emergency Management Bureau Chief Gwen Keenan.

“As we gather this Fourth of July weekend to celebrate and honor America’s independence, I urge Floridians and visitors to enjoy themselves while taking the proper fire safety precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones,” said CFO Sink. “All fireworks can be dangerous, and that makes it all the more crucial that the public only use state-approved fireworks for their celebrations.”

Nearly 7,000 Americans were treated for fireworks-related injuries in emergency rooms in 2008, and fireworks caused an estimated 22,500 reported fires that year.

“The Fourth of July is an occasion that brings many families and friends together and we want to make sure the special day is observed safely this weekend,” said Director Halas. “Only use state-approved fireworks and be sure to pay attention to your surroundings, especially around children.”

Under Florida law, only sparklers approved by CFO Sink’s Division of State Fire Marshal are legal for consumer usage. However, an exemption in the law allows for the use of un-approved fireworks for agricultural purposes, such as frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries. Anyone using fireworks under the agricultural exemption must have a permit from the Sheriff in the county where they will use the product. Without a permit, it is illegal to use fireworks in Florida, which includes: shells and mortars, multiple tube devices, Roman candles, rockets and firecrackers.

As a general guideline, anything that flies through the air or explodes is not allowed for consumer use. Floridians should not sign “waivers” in order to purchase fireworks. Signing a waiver will not clear a consumer of responsibility should you be caught illegally using fireworks, which is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

There is still a risk of injury with the use of legal sparklers. When lit, some sparklers can reach temperatures between 1,300 and 1,800 degrees - at least 200 degrees hotter than a standard butane lighter. For a list of hundreds of sparklers that are legal to use in Florida, as well as safety tips, visit the State Fire Marshal’s web site at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/sfm/sparklerindex.htm.

To celebrate safely, CFO Sink advises Floridians to follow these precautions:


CFO Alex Sink’s Priority Legislation to Increase Accountability Is in Effect

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Thursday issued the following statement regarding her priority legislative reforms that went into effect on July 1:

“I’ve led the charge to reform Florida's contracting process, leading by example in my Department of Financial Services,” said CFO Sink. “The new Contracting Reforms legislation provides for greater accountability and transparency in state contracting, saving taxpayer dollars and reducing waste in state government.”

CFO Sink also noted reforms taking effect July 1 at the State Board of Administration, including required quarterly board meetings, but expressed disappointment that the Legislature did not pass reforms that would expand the Board of Trustees to include people with financial experience and expertise.

“The buck stops with the Trustees,” said CFO Sink. “We do a disservice to our police officers, firefighters, teachers and other state employees who entrust their retirement to our pension fund if we do not ensure the strongest oversight possible.”

CFO Sink’s recommendations included in SB 2386 (Contracting Reforms) now:

The SBA Reform Bill (HB 1307) includes many of CFO Sink’s suggested reforms, including:

CFO Sink’s Safeguard Our Seniors Legislation goes into effect January 1, 2011.


Local Governments Need Help Now

Florida CFO Alex Sink called for a designated decision-maker able to approve proposed response efforts including the purchase of boom, and an expedited claims process for Northwest Florida local governments and small businesses.

CFO Sink’s call came on the heels of a meeting on Tuesday with local government representatives who expressed their frustration at BP’s claims process and asked for assistance in receiving prompt decisions on their plans for response and recovery. Attendees at the meeting expressed their frustration that Unified Command will not give them immediate answers and there is no clear process from BP on how – or if – the local governments will be reimbursed.

“There needs to be a clear decision-maker to help local governments respond on a real-time basis to this disaster,” said CFO Sink. “Instead of waiting 48 hours for assistance, local governments are waiting 48 days, and this is just not acceptable.”

Councilman P.C. Wu of Pensacola compared it to a fire approaching an individual’s home but having to ask permission to use water. “Then, if you use water without permission, you don’t know whether or not you’ll have to pay for it,” Councilman Wu said.

Earlier Tuesday, CFO Sink sent a letter to Kenneth Feinberg, the independent claims administrator for the new $20 billion escrow account for Gulf oil spill claims from BP, urging him to implement changes that would improve and expedite the claims process for affected Floridians. For more information on CFO Sink’s response to the oil spill, visit: http://www.myfloridacfo.com/OilSpill/default.htm.


CFO Sink Urges Claims Administrator Feinberg to Improve Claims

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday sent a letter to Kenneth Feinberg, the independent claims administrator for the new $20 billion escrow account for Gulf oil spill claims from BP, urging him to implement changes that would improve and expedite the claims process for affected Floridians. The recommendations are based on CFO Sink’s role overseeing the Department of Financial Services, which assists consumers with financial and insurance issues, including insurance claims.

“As Floridians began to work with the BP claims process, they turned to my department and our Insurance Consumer Advocate with their questions and frustrations,” said CFO Sink. “After having worked with frustrated small business owners for weeks and utilizing my department’s insurance claims background, I offer the following recommendations on how you can improve, simplify, and expedite the new claims process.”

Read CFO Sink's letter to Kenneth Feinberg.


Clean Energy Congress Offers Declaration of Energy Independence

Florida CFO Alex Sinkspoke to the Clean Energy Congress, a 120-member delegation of renewable energy proponents and advocates meeting in the legislative chambers in Tallahassee. CFO Sink spoke passionately about her commitment to moving Florida in the direction of energy independence and the building of a new, clean-energy economy.

CFO Sink noted that even if the Gulf oil disaster had not been forced upon the people of Florida, we would still need to work together on key opportunities to change the face of Florida’s economy and our energy future.

"It’s time to seize the day. It’s time for your state government to work with you to build the infrastructure and support the demand for biomass, biofuels and solar,” said CFO Sink. “When the world talks about Florida as the Sunshine State, why shouldn’t it be the Sunshine State not just because of our great weather, but because we are the leader in capturing the power of solar and renewable energy and creating new jobs?”

CFO Sink also stressed that Florida has the advantage of its three-season growing cycle to grow biomass crops for use as biofuels, creating new good-paying jobs for the future. She added that this profitable new industry was a win-win for everyone, creating jobs and making farming profitable enough to incent farmers to remain in the business and not sell their land for development.

Sink thanked the Congress for coming up with ideas and recommendations to be used by state leaders in formulating policies to shape the future.


CFO Alex Sink: ‘Florida Vets Connect’ Now Helping Veterans Receive Benefits Information

Florida CFO Alex Sink reminds Florida Veterans that ‘Florida Vets Connect’ is now in operation. The program, a joint initiative of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA) and the Florida Department of Highway and Safety Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), is designed to recognize Florida’s veterans and provide them with information about the benefits they may be entitled to through their brave service to our country.

“It is especially fitting as we go into the July 4th holiday weekend, that we should do everything we can to honor the service of our veterans who’ve sacrificed so much for our country,” said CFO Sink. “The new Florida Vets Connect initiative will make it easier for Florida’s veterans to receive the benefits they may be entitled to through their brave service.”

The program will now allow veterans to voluntarily identify their veteran status when applying for or renewing a driver license or ID card. Their contact information will then be used by Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs to ensure Florida’s veterans are provided information about the benefits to which they may be entitled.

At no cost to taxpayers, ‘Florida Vets Connect’ utilizes driver license offices as an intake point to gather information on veterans not currently in the state system. The DHSMV will collect, store, and make this information available to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The program began yesterday as part of the regular DHSMV July system update.

According to 2010 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data, Florida’s veteran population totals over 1.68 million but the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs only has accurate contact information for approximately 700,000 veterans living in the state. Nationwide, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine reported more than $22 billion in veterans' pension funds go unclaimed annually.


CFO Sink Statement Recognizing the Loss of Tampa Police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday issued the following statement in remembrance of Tampa Police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis:

“My heart goes out to the families of these brave officers in this very difficult time,” said CFO Sink. “This is an absolute tragedy – Officers Kocab and Curtis were just 31 years old; Kocab’s wife is expecting, and Curtis leaves behind a wife and four young children. I express my deepest sympathies to their families and offer my condolences to the Tampa Police Department on losing two fine colleagues. I ask Floridians to join me honoring these dedicated public servants and in recognizing the tremendous sacrifices our law enforcement officers make every day throughout Florida.”


Consumer Corner: Senate Passes Extension of the National Flood Insurance Program

The U.S. Senate passed an extension of the National Flood Insurance Program until September 30, 2010. Because the extension is retroactive, any new policy applications or renewals that were signed and submitted during the hiatus will be effective from the date of application (or in the case of waiting periods, the waiting period will start from the date of application).

The extension will go into effect when President Obama signs the bill into law.

As of midnight on May 31, 2010, insurance agents have not been able to provide new or renewal flood insurance policies. While no new or renewal policies can be issued during a lapse in NFIP authorization, consumers with current flood insurance policies remain covered. Claims payments for current policyholders are not affected.

For more information about flood insurance, visit CFO Sink’s online Insurance Library or go to http://www.fema.gov.


ICA Shaw Offers Consumers Tips on Navigating Federal Healthcare Reform Part IV - A Summer Series

Sean Shaw, Insurance Consumer Advocate

Navigating the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) can be a difficult task on your own. In the previous installments of this series, the Office of the Insurance Consumer Advocate provided consumers with information about benefits now available, as well as changes consumers can expect in future years.

In this installment, we explore consumers’ ability to keep their current health plan. During the health reform debate, the President told Americans that if they liked their current health plan, they could keep it. He emphasized that there is nothing in the new law that would force them to change plans or doctors. Existing plans that are unaffected by health care reform are referred to as “grandfathered” health plans. “Grandfathered” health plans are exempt from the vast majority of the new insurance reforms. However, “grandfathered” plans are subject to a handful of requirements with different effective dates.

The Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury recently issued new regulations for health coverage, which were in place on March 23, 2010. The new rules:

The new rules preserve the ability of consumers to keep their current plan while providing new benefits, minimizing market disruption and moving toward more competitive, patient-centered health care. The new law requires that all health plans provide important new benefits to consumers; it allows plans that existed on March 23, 2010, to innovate and contain costs by allowing insurers and employers to make routine changes without losing their “grandfathered” status. Plans will lose their “grandfathered” status if they choose to significantly cut benefits, increase premiums by certain amounts, or increase out-of-pocket spending for policyholders. Consumers in plans that make such changes will gain all of the new consumer protections.

Most of the 133 million Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance through large employers will be able to maintain the coverage they have today. Large employer-based plans already offer most of the comprehensive benefits and consumer protections that the PPACA will provide to all Americans.

People empolyed by small businesses, as well as people who purchase their own insurance in the individual market,or who change insurers often, will enjoy all of the benefits of the PPACA when they choose a new plan. These consumers will benefit from the new competitive insurance exchanges that will be established in 2014 to offer individuals and workers in small businesses a greater choice of plans at more affordable rates.

As more information is available and additional changes become effective, the Office of the Insurance Consumer Advocate will generate advisories regarding their effect on consumers. More information regarding the PPACA can be found on the website of the Insurance Consumer Advocate at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/ica/federalhealthcare.asp.

Consumers who have further questions regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should contact the Division of Consumer Services within the Department of Financial Services on-line at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/ or by phone at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236), toll-free in Florida, and (850) 413-3089 from out of state.

The Insurance Consumer Advocate is appointed by Florida CFO Alex Sink and is committed to finding solutions to insurance issues facing Floridians, calling attention to questionable insurance practices, promoting a viable insurance market responsive to the needs of Florida’s diverse population and assuring that rates are fair and justified.


Hurricane Checklist: Business Owners, Are You Covered?

As you take steps to protect your home and family don’t forget about also taking steps to protect your business. Have you prepared your business for a natural disaster?

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your business can withstand a natural disaster:

If you did not answer “yes” to all of these questions, you have a benchmark to start your disaster plan. It is critical to put safeguards in place now to keep your business running after a disaster strikes.

For additional resources, please visit www.myfloridacfo.com, http://www.disastersafety.org/, www.floridaSBDC.org, or www.sba.gov.

Find out when a Hurricane Preparedness Event will be in your area from our calendar: Upcoming Disaster Preparation Events. Check back with us next week for more ideas.


My Family CFO: The Evolution of the Coupon into Mobile Marketing

Invented in 1894 by an Atlanta businessman/co-owner of Coca-Cola, the coupon has grown to be a staple of shoppers in the United States. From its start as a handwritten ticket to trade for a glass of Coke, coupons have grown into devices for companies to track the habits of their customers.

Similar to conventional coupons in Sunday newspaper circulars, today's digital coupon utilizes bar codes to store useful information in a database for marketers, including when and where the coupon was obtained, viewed and redeemed. Retailers can combine the bar code data with information about the buyer, creating intricate profiles of the shopper's habits. Retail stores, grocers and fast-food businesses use mobile marketing to provide useful, personalized advertising offers.

The big advantage of mobile coupons is the convenience, because your phone is always with you. Mobile marketing is just beginning, and there's not much uniformity in how it is done, although nearly all require that you sign up or opt in.

Target is now using scannable mobile bar code coupons at its 1,750 stores nationwide. Be aware that up to 15 pieces of information - from search terms to your phone number - can be given to a store from the bar code of a mobile coupon from your phone.

It isn't clear yet how the information will be used, but the use of the scannable codes will give retailers a view into your life and your shopping preferences. Consumers should exercise the same caution in downloading coupons to mobile devices as to their computers to avoid identity theft.


Safeguard Our Seniors Helps Protect Floridians

Every day, hundreds of Floridians fall victim to financial fraud. Many of these victims are trusting seniors who were misled into making risky or inappropriate financial investments including annuities and reverse mortgages by unscrupulous agents and scam artists. in response, CFO Sink created the Safeguard Our Seniors Task Force to develop solutions to better protect Florida seniors from falling victim to financial fraud.

Florida CFO Alex Sink’s Department of Financial Services hosted Safeguard Our Seniors workshops in Fort Walton Beach and Destin this past week as part of CFO Sink’s ongoing statewide initiative to protect seniors from financial fraud through education and increased awareness.

The Department of Financial Services was joined by a local victim of financial fraud who told her story, along with representatives from the department’s Division of Agent and Agency Services, the Division of Insurance Fraud and the Division of Consumer Services.

Over the last two years, CFO Sink’s Department of Financial Services has held more than 400 Safeguard Our Seniors events throughout the state to teach how to guard against fraud and scams targeting seniors.

Calendar of Events


Florida Housing Help Website and Workshops

The Florida Housing Help website will help connect struggling Floridians who may be at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure or may be facing mortgage fraud issues with assistance. For a schedule of workshops that include community partners and resources and offer great information for citizens, read the Florida Housing Help Calendar.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's Consumer eViews 1-877-MY-FL-CFO