TALLAHASSEE -- The campaign to force hundreds of thousands of homeowners out of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. kicked into high gear Tuesday, as insurance regulators approved a 10.8 percent rate increase and private insurers began sending “takeout” proposals to 210,000 property owners.
The average homeowner covered by Citizens will have to pay an additional $250 when their policy renews next year, and some will have to pay hundreds of dollars more under the rate increases approved by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
Sinkhole rates will increase 25 percent in Pasco and Hernando counties and 50 percent in Hillsborough, costing homeowners between $130 and $375 on average. For condos and rental homes, sinkhole rates will go up 44.8 percent.
The rate hikes — which kick in next year — immediately drew a backlash from critics of Citizens’ aggressive downsizing strategy.
“This is the mentality of Tallahassee — raise rates as high as you can, force people out,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has criticized Citizens’ board for unilaterally overhauling the state’s largest insurer. ”Citizens should not be granted any rate increase because they have already given themselves rate increases through the back door.”
The rate increase comes as five different private insurance companies begin plans to take over as many as 210,000 policies from Citizens. Under the “takeout” program, companies began sending letters to homeowners this week offering them an alternative to Citizens. Homeowners have 30 days to opt-out before they are automatically shifted to the private companies.
The push for higher rates and more takeouts is part of an ongoing effort — championed by Gov. Rick Scott — to shrink Citizens and bolster the private insurance market.
In the last year, Citizens has raised rates, reduced coverage, stripped away discounts and increased post-storm deductibles in an multibillion-dollar effort to shred risk and make itself less attractive. The insurer of 1.4 million says its rates are below market value, leaving state taxpayers at risk if a monstrous storm hits.
“Citizens is pleased that Insurance Commissioner [Kevin] McCarty has approved its measured approach to achieving sound rates and reducing the potential financial burden of assessments for all Floridians,” spokesperson Christine Ashburn said in a statement.
Consumer advocates and policyholders decried the multimillion-dollar rate increase as heavy-handed and insensitive to struggling Floridians who have already weathered hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance cost increases.
"This isn’t just a rate hike of more than 10 percent, it’s a rate hike of more than 10 percent after Citizens changed the rules — taking away mitigation discounts, reducing coverage, and changing replacement values,” said Sean Shaw, founder of Policyholders of Florida. “Citizens is getting away with charging more for less and policyholders and our economy are worse off because of it."
In the case of homeowners like Pauline McCoy, Citizens’ aggressive downsizing strategy appears to be achieving the board’s desired result.
McCoy, of Lauderhill, saw her insurance premium nearly double after an inspector came to her home and found that she did not deserve insurance discounts that she was getting. Together with the upcoming 10.8 percent rate increase, her insurance bill is expected to jump by nearly $1,500 next year.