The state-run insurer is bound by a 2009 law that limits rate increases to 10 percent annually, but it has found several creative ways to raise premiums by 40-, 60- and even 100 percent this year. A Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times analysis of thousands of pages of company records and dozens of interviews revealed a fast-changing insurance market in which the 10 percent cap is becoming increasingly futile against a well-organized campaign to raise rates and reduce coverage.
The dirty word among Citizens policyholders — reinspections.
Through reinspections, higher estimates of replacement costs and new sinkhole-related charges, Citizens has raised premiums far beyond the 10 percent cap, taking in more money than ever before.
Though the company has been collecting billions of dollars in premiums during the past six hurricane-free years, Scott and Citizens’ leaders say it remains severely undercapitalized. If a major hurricane hits the state and Citizens runs out of money, taxpayers will be on the hook to bail the company out through hurricane taxes.
Temple, and other homeowners like her, feel that they’ve already been hit with a massive hurricane tax, just without the hurricane. Citizens’ flurry of policy changes has bred hundreds of millions of dollars in rate increases this year alone. Over time, the pocketbook impact on homeowners will likely reach into the billions.
Though Citizens has typically been governed by the Florida Legislature, its current multibillion-dollar campaign of premium increases and coverage reductions is being administered unilaterally by an increasingly ambitious board of eight unelected governors, at the direction of Scott.
Citizens’ statewide program of home reinspections has led to an unprecedented stripping of insurance discounts worth millions of dollars. (Homes with hurricane-resistant features are eligible for “wind-mitigation discounts” on their insurance premiums.)
The reinspection of more than 200,000 homes has been a boon to the insurer’s bottom line. In nearly 75 percent of cases, inspectors are able to find cause for stripping homeowner discounts, producing premium increases of $137 million.
That translates to more than $800 for each homeowner who loses wind-mitigation discounts because of a reinspection.
With the money from reinspections flowing in — and the 10 percent cap powerless to limit inspection-related premium increases — Citizens is rapidly ramping up the program.
“The return investment of this program so far has been about 300 percent,” Carlos Lacasa, Citizens’ board chairman, told Scott at a Cabinet meeting in December. “We’re looking forward to a very successful reinspection program.”
Citizens launched the massive reinspection push under the premise that thousands of homeowners had received unwarranted discounts due to widespread fraud. However, only a handful of cases have been referred to Florida’s Division of Insurance Fraud, and convictions have been scarce. (More than 700,000 policies receive mitigation credits, but only three people have been charged with mitigation fraud since 2009, according to state data.)
Consumer advocates are crying foul.
“Citizens has gone from incentivizing mitigation discounts to implicating homeowners for virtually non-existent, undocumented fraud,” said Sean Shaw, founder of Policyholders of Florida. “This isn’t just inconsistent, it’s harmful to policyholders and our economy. It’s nothing more than a wild goose chase and another excuse to try to jack up our rates.”