|Date:||June 223, 2017|
When board members of the state’s largest property insurer unanimously endorsed a proposed set of premium hikes for 2018 averaging 5.3 percent at a meeting this week in Maitland, they could have been forgiven for adding, “We told you so.”
Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the insurer of last resort in Florida, began warning legislators at least a couple of years ago that escalating abuse of a state law on insurance reimbursements would push up its costs and force it to increase its rates. Citizens pumped up the volume on those warnings before this year’s legislative session. Still, House and Senate members failed to agree on a fix.
“We’re not sitting back and saying, ‘Hey, we’ll wait ... and maybe we can get something done from a legislative standpoint next year,’” Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway said. “We can’t wait.”
The law at issue allows policyholders seeking home repairs to assign the right to collect reimbursement from their insurers to the contractors they hire. There are good intentions behind this system, known as assignment of benefits: to help homeowners get repairs done faster and spare them out-of-pocket costs. But some contractors — especially those in South Florida handling claims for water damage from leaking pipes or appliances — have been hiring lawyers and suing insurers if their claims are rejected or reduced. State figures show the number of AOB lawsuits skyrocketed from 405 in 2006 to more than 28,000 in 2016.
Gilway told the Miami Herald that it costs Citizens five times as much to settle a claim through litigation, and half the company’s water claims in South Florida are now litigated. AOB lawsuits have driven the price of an average Citizens’ multi-peril homeowner policy from $367 in 2011 to a projected $2,083 this year, according to the company.
Citizens policyholders in Central Florida might question whether they have a dog in this fight. The company’s rate proposal for multi-peril homeowner policies in Orange County calls for a decrease of 3.2 percent. Seminole would see a drop of 7.7 percent; Lake, a decrease of 6.1 percent; and Osceola, a dip of 0.8 percent.
But Citizens leaders warn that AOB abuse has been spreading from South Florida into the Tampa and Orlando areas. So Miami-Dade’s misery could turn into Orange’s ordeal in the future with more delay from the Legislature.
As the largest property insurer in Florida, Citizens is a bellwether for the industry in the state. Earlier this year, an Ohio firm that rates the financial health of insurance companies announced it would downgrade at least 10 other property insurers in Florida because of their losses from nonweather-related water-damage claims.
Higher property insurance costs will hurt the state’s economy, and push the cost of housing out of reach for more low- and moderate-income Floridians. It’s no wonder other state leaders are concerned.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who is leaving office at the end of the month, took time after his last Cabinet meeting to urge legislators to deal with AOB abuse. “We never want to harm any individual out there in getting the absolute quick and full coverage they deserve on a claim, but the majority of this right now is costing the honest Floridian tremendous pain,” Atwater said.
State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier warned the Cabinet that growing AOB abuse would lead in a best-case scenario to higher insurance premiums, and in a worst-case scenario to insurers withdrawing from some parts of the state.
Citizens has asked Altmaier’s office to approve a series of changes in the company’s coverage rules to encourage policyholders to avoid litigation. But Gilway said the changes would only be “stopgap measures” until the Legislature acts.
During this year’s session, the House passed a bill to make it harder for policyholders to assign benefits and to limit lawyers’ fees. The Senate balked because the legislation didn’t include mandatory rate reductions for insurers, which is a reasonable expectation for a bill that would bring down their costs.
The two chambers could have bridged their differences, if only legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott had put the same priority in breaking this impasse as others, such as the one over spending on economic development and tourism marketing. Surely it would have been possible to pass a bill that targeted AOB abuse without unduly infringing on the rights of policyholders.
Instead, the cost of insurance for many Florida homeowners will climb again in 2018. Legislators have long since run out of good excuses for wasting another year.