Business

Activism provides strength to battle insurers

In the 1976 movie Network, Peter Finch throws open a window and screams out: ``I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.''

He starts a chain reaction as his fellow New Yorkers rail against personal injustices.

Today, all over South Florida, many consumers -- overwhelmed by soaring insurance rates -- would love to repeat Finch's performance.

Take Ivan Saldana in Pembroke Pines. His annual premium jumped more than 500 percent from the $1,160 he used to pay Atlantic Preferred, which folded earlier this year. Now with Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort, he's stuck with the policy the company offers. He would like to reduce or drop his wind coverage, because he no longer has a mortgage on his home. But state law doesn't allow this where he lives.

''Never in my life have I witnessed such absurdity. Where can I go, where can I turn, to wrestle this insanity?'' asks Saldana.

For Saldana and others, venting at the top of their lungs from their front yards may be cathartic, but it's not the most effective way to demand change.

There are lessons to be learned from others who have stepped up to challenge insurers and regulators on rate increases and call for action from elected officials.

Here's some advice from the consumer activist trenches:



Robert Hunter, a former insurance regulator and now director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, is an expert in agitating for change and bringing consumers to the table. He says:

• Get organized. Start a local activist group. Even a few neighbors can be effective.



Hunter recalls that after hail storms hit part of Maryland in 1985, several insurers including State Farm hassled policyholders on paying claims. A consumer group formed, called HAIL -- Homeowners Against Insurance Loopholes. It negotiated with insurers and eventually resolved most claims issues.

Hunter truly believes there is power in numbers. And having a clever name for your group doesn't hurt.

• Extend your reach. Link up with regional, state or national consumer groups such as the Florida Consumer Action Network, Americans for Insurance Reform or the Consumer Federation.



• Master the Web. Having a website is a good way to collect names, addresses and e-mails of consumers in your region who share the same problem with their insurers.



The Internet is also an excellent vehicle to share information about recent developments, progress on key issues and upcoming meetings and fundraisers.



Tommy and Kim Mack of Key West know firsthand that being involved makes a difference. They're members of Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe, a consumer group that helped persuade regulators to roll back rates set by Citizens Property Insurance for Monroe County. Their advice:

• Get angry, then get involved. Nearly two years ago, Tommy Mack was more than upset when he opened his insurance renewal notice. He began asking friends, neighbors, just about anyone he met, how much their insurance bill had shot up. He put all the information into a spreadsheet.



''When we saw all these incredible rate increases with no rhyme or reason, that was a motivating factor. To get active, you have to get angry,'' says Tommy Mack.

Today, FIRM (www.fairin suranceratesinmonroe.com) has more than 3,000 members.

• Get political. Even before FIRM was organized in the Keys, the Macks were in action. They put the insurance issue in front of Morgan McPherson, who was running for mayor of Key West in late 2005. The Macks told the candidate, who won the election, that unless there was some solution to runaway insurance costs, the county's woes with affordable housing would continue.



''If you can't get the attention of those in office, look to those who are seeking those jobs and help make insurance a plank in their campaigns,'' says Tommy Mack.

Earlier this year while attending a political fundraiser in Washington, the Macks made their way to the office of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the U.S. congresswoman whose district includes Monroe, to tell her about the problems high insurance costs were creating for their area.

• Divide and conquer. Take advantage of the expertise of your group's members.



At FIRM, Heather Carruthers and Kim Mack dive into complex insurance regulation and rate filings. They monitor the Office of Insurance Regulation's website for new documents relating to Citizens' rate increases, as well as Citizens' website. Carruthers also keeps media and local officials informed.



Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, works the consumer beat every day. He says:

• Get educated. Insurance is complex, Newton says, and consumer activists run the risk of not being taken seriously if they haven't done their homework.



Sites that provide industry background and information:

National Association of Insurance Commissioner (www.naic.org) has information on consumer complaints and basic financial data on each company. Detailed financial statements for the past two years are available for a fee.

Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (www.floir.com), the official website for the state's regulators, allows consumers to research insurers operating in this state.

Florida Insurance Council (www.flains.org), an industry trade group, offers a good recap of news and important issues for the industry.

• Get to know the lawmakers. The Florida Legislature is where insurance laws are crafted. Find out who is on the House and Senate insurance committees. That's where new laws take shape.



Committee members are listed on the House and Senate websites (www.myfloridahouse.gov and www.flsenate.gov).

Key committee meetings and floor debates, as well the final votes on potential new laws, are webcast. Details are on the websites.

• Educate or lobby -- not both. Most consumer groups are nonprofit organizations that raise free dollars. Federal laws prevent them from lobbying lawmakers. But they can educate them about the issues, says Newton.



If you're a lobbying group, organizing that way is your choice, but then donations aren't tax free.

A way around these issues is to set up your local group as an affiliate to an established group. ''That way you can use their permits. But you'd have to contribute to the overhead costs of the parent organization,'' says Newton.

• Shine in the court of public opinion. Insurers have more money than any consumer group to contribute to political campaigns, but lawmakers still care about public opinion. Activists can make sure lawmakers know how the folks back home feel about rate hikes and poor claims handling, says Newton.



Use the media to make your point of view known, using newspaper op-ed pieces, e-mails, blogs and old-fashioned letters.

• Get in their face. If your group can afford to, go to Tallahassee. Committee meetings and House and Senate sessions are open to the public. Schedules are on the House and Senate websites.



You can organize a group meeting with a key decision maker, says Newton. Prepare what points you want to cover, rehearse and make sure everyone ``is on message.''

For instance, during the last week of this year's legislative session, about a dozen members from FIRM swarmed the Capitol building in Tallahassee. Wearing matching T-shirts and handing out CDs with a well-crafted Powerpoint presentations on insurance rates in the Keys, FIRM members made the rounds of committee meetings, House and Senate sessions, and stopped by the offices of the state's chief financial officer and Senate and House representatives.

Office locations and phone numbers are listed on the member pages that can be accessed from the main House and Senate websites.

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