|Date:||October 10, 2017|
Restoration companies and trial attorneys aren’t the only ones to blame for the “assignment of benefits” crisis driving steep annual home insurance rate hikes in South Florida.
“Bad insurance companies” are culprits too, and one of them is Fort Lauderdale-based Universal Property & Casualty, the state’s largest property insurer.
That’s what the owner of a Pensacola-based restoration contractor told the state Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on Tuesday in the first meeting of yet another effort to build consensus for legislation aimed at curbing rising claims costs, lawsuits and legal fees.
The assertions by Dave DeBlander, owner of Pro Clean Restoration and Cleaning, counter what insurance companies and their supportershave been sayingfor at least five years about repair contractors and their attorneys.
Insurers paint repair contractors as “fraudsters” or “bad actors” who coerce policyholders into signing over their rights to bill insurers before commencing work. Insurers say contractors, particularly in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, routinely inflate their invoices then they can file suit when insurers deny or underpay their claims. Trial attorneys participate so they can collect legal fees when insurers inevitably settle, insurers say.
DeBlander said Universal is among “bad” companies that subject contractors to long delays before underpaying for completed work. He named the company at the urging of two senators on the committee after he described bad experiences with unidentified “bad” insurers.
DeBlander told the Senate committee that he was forced to sue an insurer — which he said in an interview after the meeting was not Universal -- that for 10 months stalled on paying a $6,500 invoice. Finally the insurer told him, “We’re going to give you $3,800.”
“So I have a lawsuit right now,” DeBlander said at the meeting. “We’ll win.”
And the insurer will end up paying $13,000, including legal fees, and use the case as an example of AOB lawsuits driving up costs, he said.
Without an assignment of benefits, DeBlander said, “I would have to sue the homeowner because I didn’t get paid my $6,500. “That’s why we have to use an AOB. It protects us and it protects the homeowner.”
Altmaier responded by voicing doubts about DeBlander’s account.
“I’ve heard that statement many times: ‘Insurance companies don’t show up.
They don’t pay claims. They don’t answer the phone when the consumer calls,’” Altmaier said. “Every time I hear that statement I go back to my office and I ask my staff, ‘Find anything you can to find out whether or not that’s true.’”
If it is true, Altmaier said, the Office of Insurance Regulation has a “market conduct” compliance division “that needs to go in there and take care of that.”
Ultimately, Altmaier said, “we have not found any quantifiable evidence to support that there’s a systematic business model approach to slow-paying or underpaying claims.”
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, urged DeBlander to identify the companies he was complaining about.
Then the committee chairwoman, Sen.Anitere Flores, R-Miami, urged, “Go for it Mr. DeBlander, name them.”
In an interview later, DeBlander said he identified Universal because they are known in the restoration community as “the worst one” and he doesn’t want to endanger his business by angering the six or seven others that operate in a similar fashion with constant delays and underpayments.
DeBlander said in the interview that he has sued Universal about a half dozen times in recent years over claims disputes. He sued the company last year after submitting a bill for $43,000. The company offered $23,000. Eventually, DeBlander settled for about $5,000 less than his invoice, he said.
According to state data, the number of lawsuits filed against Universal in Florida doubled between the first half of 2016 and the first half of 2017.
Asked about DeBlander’s statements at the Senate meeting, Travis Miller, a Universal spokesman, said they “do not reflect Universal’s experience with his company, not do they accurately portray the company’s claims handling.”
Universal has worked with DeBlander to resolve questions over payments and “has promptly paid the company’s invoices,” Miller said. The spokesman added that the amount of time Universal takes to pay claims has declined on average every year since 2013. Also, the company employs more in-house adjusters now than ever before “which obviously contributes to the increased speed of its claims process.”
In the Senate committee meeting, Flores said she wanted to bring together members of the insurance industry and the contractor community to try to reach compromises over issues that have stymied reform bills in the past.
The legislature has tried and failed to enact reforms for five straight years. But with insurers projecting the issue will force them to raise rates 10 percent each year for the foreseeable future, lawmakers have to keep working on a solution, Flores said in an interview after the meeting.
Flores said she plans to schedule additional meetings with the sides.
She said she hopes whatever bill results from the meetings addresses abuses by members of both sides of the issue. “Much like any industry, it’s the extremes on both sides that make matters worse,” she said.