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Citizens pitches rate hike as water claims rise


Date: August 19, 2016
Source: My Panhandle WMBB



State-backed Citizens Property Insurance urged regulators Thursday to back a request for an average 6.8 percent rate hike to cover a surge in water-damage claims.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, which held a two-hour hearing on the proposal, is expected to rule in early September.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier said after the hearing that regulators will take their time "vetting the issue."

"There are indications in the filing that the spike in water claims is going to cause, in order to be able to make sure that reserves are sufficient to pay for that, you need to collect more premium dollars," Altmaier said. "So, that's what the increased indication would seem to suggest."

The requested change, if approved, would go into effect Feb. 1.

For customers, changes would vary by policy and location.

For example, rates would go up an average of 6.3 percent for inland homeowners who have multi-peril policies, which include coverage for water damage, according to Citizens. Multi-peril policies for coastal homeowners would see an average increase of 8.6 percent.

Wind-only policies for personal-lines customers also would go up an average of 8.3 percent, under the proposal.

Officials from Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, requested that a rate hike on wind-storm policies in their county be delayed for up to three years.

Key West resident Joe Walsh, representing the group Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe County, read regulators a list of Keys residents who said they may have to move out of the county due to rising premiums.

"We have some significant community challenges to having an affordable place to live," Walsh said. "When on top of that we add multiple years of 7-, 8-, 9 percent wind-storm rate increases, then we create a massive problem trying to retain the backbone of the community, the people that work for a living ... the teachers, the cooks in restaurants, firefighters, police officers, the people who coach sports teams. These are the people that are most significantly impacted by the rate increase before you and the rate increases over the past dozen years."

Altmaier called it "troubling" if anyone has to consider moving because of insurance rates.

Citizens President & CEO Barry Gilway said after the hearing that the regulators were "very, very fair" in their questioning.

The driving factor for the requested hike remains an increase in water-damage claims --- initially concentrated in Southeast Florida but now appearing statewide --- and a related, politically charged issue known as "assignment of benefits."

When homeowners need repairs for problems such as water damage, they sometimes sign over benefits to contractors, who ultimately pursue payments from insurance companies.

Citizens and other insurers have lobbied in the Legislature for restrictions on assignment of benefits, contending the practice leads to fraud and litigation. But plaintiffs' attorneys and contractors argue, in part, the practice helps homeowners hire contractors quickly to repair damage and also can help force insurers to properly pay claims.

The plaintiffs' lawyers and contractors --- none appeared at Thursday's hearing --- also contend assignment of benefits can help prevent consumers from having to fend for themselves in insurance disputes.

Earlier this year, the Office of Insurance Regulation reported the state had seen a 46 percent increase in water-damage claims and a 28 percent increase in costs since 2010.

Unable to get legislation passed, Citizens has made a number of policy changes intended to rein in the water-damage claims.

Since July 1, policyholders need to get company approval for emergency measures that exceed $3,000 or 1 percent of what is known as the "Coverage A" limit, which reflects the cost to rebuild a policyholder's home.

To receive coverage for permanent repairs, the loss must be inspected by Citizens or the work approved by the company. But if the company does not conduct an inspection or approve the work within 72 hours after a claim is made, the customer would be able to start permanent repairs.

Insurance Consumer Advocate Sha'Ron James said after the hearing on Thursday she awaits responses from Citizens as she continues to review the proposal.

"The questions relate to clarification on some reinsurance issues, clarifications on their water-loss trends," James said.

The Office of Insurance Regulation will continue to take public comments through Sept. 1.

A year ago, Citizens got rate increases for 2016 after regulators made a few tweaks --- dropping a wind-only policy average from 9 percent to 8.3 percent and increasing residential multi-peril accounts from 1.3 percent to 1.8 percent --- that spread the additional costs to policyholders in coastal areas.

Citizens, which has reduced its policy count by more than 70 percent since 2012, had 490,862 policies as of July 31.