Business

Sky-high premiums igniting a revolt by consumers

Under fluorescent lights and through a microphone that kept shorting out, Joe Fontana cleared his throat and addressed his small audience.

''The insurance companies are going berserk,'' he said. ``There's no limit to what they will charge homeowners. We have to find a way to counteract this or the people in this city are going to be killed.''

Then Fontana led the 38-building-strong Miami Beach Condominium and Homeowners Alliance in devising a plan to try to stop the runaway cost of windstorm insurance.

Consumers like Fontana, fed up with double- and triple-digit insurance rate increases, are beginning to band together. Decades-old home and condo associations, newly formed grass-roots organizations and accidental neighborhood juntas are cropping up around the state to press for solutions to Florida's escalating insurance crisis.

From the Keys to the Panhandle, the groups are raising money, firing off e-mails, holding meetings, sponsoring petition drives and hiring lobbyists and lawyers to make their case in Tallahassee. Many are starting to see a benefit of wielding a collective fist.

At its meeting Thursday night at the Mimosa condominiums on Collins Avenue, the Miami Beach Alliance explored the idea of self-insuring. But instead it decided to use its political clout.

Noting that it is election season, the group will urge its members, representing about 8,000 home and condo owners, to write and call their elected officials about easing the windstorm burden.

Other groups have embarked on more ambitious endeavors.

STANDING FIRM

Born from a backyard get-together in Key West, a consumer activist group known as FIRM -- Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe -- has raised as much as $50,000 in its effort to fight Citizens Property Insurance premiums in the Keys, inspired by one woman's crusade to have her own insurance rates reduced.

Cindy Derocher was outraged when her property insurance bill rose from $5,000 to $12,000. Instead of paying right away, she applied for mitigation credits and whittled it to $9,600.

''That's what started us doing research,'' Teri Johnston, FIRM's president, said. ``We found out that Citizens was charging us $20.91 per $1,000 of principal coverage. That's in comparison to coastal areas on the Panhandle that were paying $4 per $1,000.''

FIRM, founded in February, boasts 4,000 members. The group chartered an airplane to ferry members to the state's Capitol to meet with lawmakers and invited state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, to Key West.

SMALL VICTORY

Its efforts have paid off -- at least temporarily. In May, McCarty issued an order freezing rates in Monroe County for Citizens, the state-run insurance pool that by law must charge the highest rates in the state.

''When we first started this organization, many people said to us that you can't fight government and you can't fight big business and you can't fight the insurance lobby. We have proved that is not true,'' Johnston said. ``When you get a group of concerned, educated citizens together, you can.''

Many around the state are taking that message to heart.

The 5-month-old Homeowners Against Citizens Florida, a nonprofit out of Pasco County, has seen its ranks swell to 7,000 members statewide. The group says it has collected twice as many signatures on a petition calling for a special legislative session to address the crisis.

Similarly, the year-old two-million-strong Coalition of Community Association of Florida, an umbrella group of homeowners associations, is drafting insurance legislation that it says would make it harder for insurers to randomly drop policies and plans to lobby for it next session.

Make no mistake, motivating homeowners hasn't been easy, said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber Citizens for Justice, a statewide organization that does most of its activism through the Internet.

''Americans are not very easy to rally together. They would rather watch American Idol than look after their insurance premiums, but it's an emergency and people are coming out,'' Bergemann said.

Miami Herald business writer Beatrice E. Garcia contributed to this report.

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