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Will rates go down? Answering questions from Florida’s insurance session

Monday, December 19, 2022   /   by Dave Magua

Will rates go down? Answering questions from Florida’s insurance session

How many homeowners might be kicked out of Citizens Property Insurance?

TALLAHASSEE — During a hasty special session this week, Florida lawmakers passed sweeping changes to address the state’s ailing property insurance market.

It’s the “biggest, meatiest, beefiest property insurance reform legislation that the state has ever seen,” said the House bill sponsor, Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach.

While that’s debatable, the changes lawmakers made to the insurance market this week were the biggest in years.

Here are some of the biggest questions coming out of this week:

1. Will rates go down?

Democrats’ top criticism of the legislation is that it won’t decrease rates — at least any time soon.

“That’s fair,” Leek said of the criticism. “That’s not going to provide immediate relief to homeowners.”

At best, homeowners might see rate decreases in 12 to 18 months, lawmakers said.

That’s in part because of how long the changes have to take effect. One big change, for example, applies to new claims, not existing ones — the decision to largely eliminate the requirements that property insurers pay the attorney fees of policy holders who win lawsuits over claims.

And House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the insurance market is too far gone for lawmakers to have hoped for immediate rate relief.

Instead, they aimed to stabilize the market, which has seen six companies go insolvent this year and dozens more limit new business. At best, premiums won’t keep rising next year.

“That’s where we are. I don’t like that. Floridians don’t like that,” Renner told reporters. “We’re in a very, very bad spot. So the win today is the hope that we can continue to have insurance for everyone.”

2. Will this stabilize the market?

To stabilize the market, lawmakers largely gave insurance companies what they’ve been wanting for years: sharp limits on lawsuits.

They also created a new $1 billion taxpayer-funded program to offer reinsurance — which is what insurers buy — to struggling insurers.

But whether those methods will work remains to be seen. The state has no studies to show what the effect will be.

Even before session, there were rumblings that the changes wouldn’t be enough.

The dozens of small, domestic insurers that dominate Florida’s market are highly dependent on reinsurance. And reinsurers, which are unregulated companies often based overseas, have large sway over how they fare.

The industry trade journal Reinsurance News reported this week that reinsurance providers believe the $1 billion fund doesn’t go far enough.

But Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she expects insurers to fall in line now that they’ve gotten what they wanted.

“The insurers have said for years that if we would repeal one-way attorneys fees and assignment of benefits, it would settle things down,” Passidomo said. “I’m going to hold them to that.

3. How many people will be booted from Citizens now?

Florida’s state-run Citizens Property Insurance has ballooned to more than 1.1 million policies, thanks to so many failing companies.

That’s well below its peak of 1.5 million, but state lawmakers believe it’s too many. They want to push homeowners out of Citizens and on to private carriers.

This week’s legislation will kick policyholders out of Citizens if they get an offer from a private carrier that is within 20% of Citizens’ price.

So, for example, if a homeowner was paying a $100 premium for their insurance, and they receive an offer from a private carrier of $119.99, they would no longer be able to renew their policy with Citizens.

Currently, they can stay with Citizens unless the private offer is equal to or less than Citizens’ rate. (Any new policy that comes into Citizens has to go through this 20% process, and this legislation doesn’t change that.)

So, how many people could expect to be forced into a more expensive private policy? Hardly any, if the last few years is a guide.

According to Citizens data from October, 99.7% of its renewing policyholders received no private offers at all this year. Only 0.1% of policyholders received a private offer that forced them to leave Citizens, while 0.3% received offers but could stay with Citizens.

In every year since 2018, at least 93% of Citizens policyholders received no private offers, which are tracked through the company’s electronic clearinghouse.

That’s not necessarily a surprise. Most of Florida’s domestic insurers have been trying to shed policies, not add them. It’s unknown whether that will change in the next year.

4. Will everyone on Citizens really have to get flood insurance?

One of the unexpected changes in this year’s legislation was that every Citizens policyholder will be required to carry flood insurance by 2027.

But what about policyholders in high-rise condominiums? Would someone on the 30th floor, for example, really have to get flood insurance?

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said most residents in his coastal Broward and Miami-Dade county district live in multi-story buildings, and most of those in high-rises.

Why, he asked this week, should they be required to get flood insurance, especially when their condo association will already have flood insurance?

The Republican bill sponsor had no great answers.

“It is a policy decision that we made,” Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, responded.

Pizzo was not happy. “My constituents are getting screwed,” he said.

Already, there’s speculation that lawmakers might amend the requirement next year. Under the law, those in federally designated special hazard flood zones would need coverage by April 1 (for new Citizens policyholders) or July 1 (for renewing policyholders).

“I think it will get addressed,” said Travis Moore, lobbyist for Community Associations Institute, which represents homeowners associations. “There’s been commitments made.”

5. What’s next?

Lawmakers insist they’re not done on this issue.

“I guarantee you we’re going to be doing some more work on insurance,” Passidomo said Thursday.

Renner said Wednesday that Democrats had some “interesting thoughtful ideas — ideas that we can take up.” He didn’t specify what they were.

State regulators, and potentially lawmakers, should also be receiving better information about what’s ailing the market in the next several months.

By March, the Office of Insurance Regulation should have detailed data from insurance companies about litigation. 

The office also has requested data from insurers about their affiliated companies, which have been blamed by auditors for a number of company insolvencies since 2011. The data hasn’t been released, but Boyd said he has requested it.

The Office of Insurance Regulation could be seeing big changes in the next few months as well. Commissioner David Altmaier announced his resignation on Thursday.

Lawmakers will be meeting in a series of committee weeks leading up to their next legislative session in March, when they can pass new legislation.

In the meantime, homeowners will have to wait — and hope this works.

written by Ana Ceballos