HURRICANE INSURANCE

Citizens’ cash eyed by private insurers

 

Citizens Property Insurance is considering paying private companies millions of dollars to take over its policies.

IF YOU GO:

What: Citizens Board meeting to decide rate filing for 2013.

When: 9 a.m-1 p.m.

Where: JW Marriott Hotel, 1109 Brickell Ave., Miami.


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

After six years without a hurricane, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has built up a massive cash surplus of about $6.1 billion. And private insurance companies want to get their hands on it.

As Citizens desperately tries to move its policies into Florida’s limited private market, insurers are pitching creative new ideas to help with the effort. The plans, discussed Thursday at a Citizens meeting in Miami, have two things in common: They require Citizens to pay private companies millions of dollars to take over policies, and they will result in higher premiums for newly acquired customers.

If any of the plans move forward, current Citizens customers could be shifted out of state-run insurance and into newer, smaller companies with a higher risk of going belly-up. The plans could begin as early as November. The full board would have to approve any such plan, but no date has been set for a vote.

“The goal of the proposal that we’ve given to you … is to create an incentive for the customer to leave Citizens at their own will,” said Bill Martin, president of Bankers Insurance Group, which is pushing for a system of stock-market like shares for people who leave Citizens. The system would use up to $578 million of Citizens’ cash to get started.

The plans come at a time when Citizens is trying to make itself less attractive. The state-run insurer will vote Friday on how much to raise its own rates, during a board meeting at the JW Marriot in Miami. The company is looking to raise rates by a statewide average of 7.5 percent, though increases will be higher in risk-prone areas like South Florida and rates for sinkhole coverage (mostly in Tampa area) could more than double in some cases.

Gov. Rick Scott and Citizens executives say that the insurer of 1.4 million policies is too large and needs to give way to the private market, which has contracted in recent years. If a once-in-a-lifetime type hurricane slams the state, Citizens might have to levy taxes on Floridians to cover a shortfall.

Some private companies now say they’ll take on some of Citizens’ risk — but only if Citizens pays them millions of dollars. Citizens, which has saved a record $6.1 billion during a six-year lull in hurricane activity, decided Thursday to look more closely at some of the plans.

One plan, by Tower Hill Insurance, would require Citizens to make a $150 million investment in order for the private insurer to take over 175,000 Citizens policies. The so-called “surplus note” loan, which amounts to about $850 per policy, might not be paid back for 10 years, if that. If there is a storm during that time, Citizens would have to forgive much of the loan.

Another plan, pitched by United Property and Casualty Insurance Company, requires Citizens to make up the difference between what a homeowner pays and what the rate would be without Citizens’ price caps. In some cases, insurance industry models show that Citizens rates are underpriced by thousands of dollars.

Over the course of three years, Citizens would pay United an estimated $116 million in cash for removing 175,000 policies. Homeowners would see their rates continue to increase, but no more than 10 percent annually.

John Forney, CEO of United, said the multimillion-dollar payments would be a good use of Citizens’ cash.

“I understand the notion of [Citizens] actually paying cash out is controversial and has some drawbacks, but you can get a great return on your investment,” he said.

Reducing the size of Citizens could lower the amount of potential assessments, or “hurricane taxes,” levied on consumers if Florida experienced a storm the size of Hurricane Andrew. Company leaders say Citizens needs to shrink from 1.4 million policies to about 750,000.

Preliminary results from a survey being conducted by Citizens show that less than 20 percent of homeowners realize that they could be hit for assessments after a major storm.

Fearing hurricane taxes, Scott told then-Citizens’ president Scott Wallace last year to shrink the size of the company drastically over the next few months.

“I expect the solution you and the board bring to me will solve the problem by June of next year before the next hurricane season,” Scott told Wallace in November.

Since then, company has launched on an aggressive campaign to get homeowners out of Citizens. It has scaled back what it covers, hiked premiums and deductibles, inspected thousands of homes and added more paperwork for potential new customers. It also has eliminated millions of dollars of fees for private companies taking policies out of Citizens this year.

But the impact on Citizens’ total size has been minimal. The company, which grew by more than 30 percent from 2008 to 2011, has only shrunk this year by 32,500 policies, or 2.2 percent. In part of South Florida and Tampa Bay—regions where most of Citizens’ risk is located—there are few, if any, private companies offering affordable insurance, consumer advocates say.

Additionally, about a third of homeowners decide not to leave Citizens when presented with a “takeout” offer from a private company. Many fear their rates will increase faster once they leave Citizens, which by law must keep annual rate hikes below 10 percent. Others are worried about the financial strength of the takeout company.

In the past, some smaller companies have failed after taking policies out of Citizens.

Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @ToluseO

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