Miami Herald, July 16, 2017
As South Floridians head into a hurricane season predicted to be busier-than-average, homeowners are wondering whether their insurers will pay up if their house is hit — and how to find out before a storm arrives.
Marcelo Salup, a Coral Gables resident who owns a three-bedroom home built in 1954, spends between $5,500 and $6,000 annually on premiums to Heritage Property & Casualty, a Florida insurer created in 2012.
Salup said he isn’t confident in Heritage’s ability to pay his claims but doesn’t think he has better options. “It seems to me like [Heritage] just appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “But on the other hand, it seems that we as consumers are kind of trapped.”
The squeeze may be tightening. While state-run Citizens Property remains the largest windstorm insurer in South Florida, 111 other companies hold the windstorm policies on roughly 79 percent of insured homes in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. Read more: See the full list
And despite a decade of relatively calm weather, in the past year some private insurers have pulled out of the South Florida market or raised rates — in one case, as much as 16 percent.
Those moves, say ratings and policy analysts, mean private carriers are finding it too expensive to continue their current business in South Florida. And the problem is only getting worse. Left unaddressed, South Florida rates may leap by 60 percent over the next five years, projects the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
“They’re pulling out because they’re losing on [their South Florida businesses.] And we’re failing to do anything about it,” said Jay Neal, president and CEO of the Florida Association for Insurance Reform.
The main culprit is assignment of benefits claims, or AOB claims. Such clauses allow homeowners to sign their claim rights over to contractors, who can then bill insurers directly. In South Florida, contractors have been using these contracts to perform unnecessary work and collect large fees from insurers, according to industry analysts. Insurance companies that deny the claims run the risk of getting mired in costly lawsuits.
State lawmakers have taken up the issue but have failed to make progress. This May marked the third year in a row that a bill on AOB reforms died in the Senate without a hearing.
“Every year that we delay fixing it, we’ll have double-digit rate increases,” Neal said. “Every year that we delay fixing, it will be bad for consumers.”
Meanwhile, the threat of a hurricane still looms. The newer, smaller insurers are still untested by a major storm because of the relatively calm past decade, as the Miami Herald reported last year. According to analysis by Fitch Ratings, about 60 percent of Florida homeowner’s policies are held by Florida-based companies. But are they up to the task?
Insurers Pulling Back
Twenty-five years ago, when Hurricane Andrew struck, most South Floridians were insured by national companies like Prudential and State Farm. The then-record $27 billion tab drove many companies out of the state, leaving Florida to create state-owned Citizens Property Insurance. In the last decade, the state has made a concerted effort to reduce its own risk by offering incentives to new, private companies.
Initially, the strategy showed progress, and Citizens shifted more than two thirds of its statewide policies and 61 percent of South Florida policies to other insurers. But in the past year, those insurers have balked at taking on more South Florida policies.
Heritage, South Florida’s third-largest insurer, announced earlier this year that it will no longer be writing new policies in South Florida. It has already reported a slowed 2017 first quarter, when Heritage wrote only 733 new residential policies in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties — more than a 65 percent drop from the same period a year before.
It isn’t alone. In this year’s operating budget, Citizens reported a significant drop in other insurers’ willingness to take up its South Florida policies. The trend is rapidly accelerating; the number of residential policies transferred from Citizens to other insurers in the first quarter of 2017 was about a third of the policies transferred in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe than during the same period in 2016.