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Citizens Insurance 'opt-out,' 'takeout' system nettlesome

If you want to stick with the state-run Citizens Property Insurance, pray that private insurance companies don't consider you a "desirable" policyholder.

Once the private insurers set their sights on a Citizens customer, they won't give up. Turn down one, and another will likely hit you up.

The state's "takeout" process requires Citizens policyholders to opt out if they don't want to be moved to a private insurer. But as Largo residents Olga and Adrian Mackenrow learned, opting out can be an ongoing headache.

They received a takeout notice in January from Homewise Preferred Insurance Co. and thought they had properly sent the opt out notice so they could stay with the state-run insurer.

Olga Mackenrow even took off work one day to ensure it was all done correctly.

But by August, they found that, against their stated wish, they had been transferred to Homewise, with their bank paying their insurance premium to the private company from their escrow account. They had to take more money to pay Citizens to keep their policy with the state before Homewise finally reimbursed them.

"I was very upset about the whole thing," Olga Mackenrow said. "I sent everything certified mail. It's time, money. … When is this going to stop?"

Bill Sparkes, chief operating officer at Homewise, said it had no record of the Mackenrows sending an opt-out letter directly to the company, but did find an opt-out notification sent directly to Citizens.

More takeouts are being approved, with private insurers approved to take out 110,000 more policies beginning today.

Larry Willis, a board member of the Professional Insurance Agents of Florida and the Citizens Agents Roundtable, said the program's intent is good, but there have been problems.

Willis said the Roundtable, a group that informs Citizens about agent and consumer issues, told the state-run insurance company of one client that received four takeout letters from different companies.

Takeout insurers, mostly new, small insurance companies, bid on policies in Citizens. The takeouts often bid on the same policies that come with low risk and high premiums.

Citizens randomly awards the properties. If a homeowner decides to stay with the state, his policy goes back in the pool and might be picked again.

"The takeout process can be frustrating for everybody," said Willis. "It can be frustrating for the consumer, the agent, the takeout company and for Citizens."

John Kuczwanski, a spokesman for Citizens, said changes to the takeout process by the Legislature were designed to create more choices of insurance carriers for homeowners, which would lead to lower insurance rates and reduce the state's financial exposure in a catastrophe.

Homeowners initially might be uncomfortable with companies they don't know, but they will see the benefits, Kuczwanski said. "As people become more familiar with these companies, there's a different comfort level. We don't know why a person would opt to stay with us."

In the past, insurance agents had veto power over a proposed takeout offer. But the state wanted to give consumers more choice, while pressing to empty Citizens of hundreds of thousands of policies that have left the insurer with $437-billion in risk exposure for about 1.2-million policies.

Now if agents object to a takeout offer, the agent must inform Citizens, which will send a letter to the homeowner advising that he can bypass the agent.

Insurance agents say that the prospect of losing their commissions hamstrings them from giving their customers honest advice about their misgivings about some companies.

"We're being forced to do business with many more insurance companies than we would normally do business with," Willis said. "We don't know whether the company is going to be easy to deal with."

For homeowners who want to stay with Citizens, Kuczwanski said the process provides multiple opportunities to stay with the state-run insurer, starting with the opt-out letter.

There is also a 30-day rescission period where customers can switch back to Citizens, and after that, the state-run insurer will still review cases of those who want to come back.

Jane Ames, 76, of New Smyrna Beach, is "flabbergasted" at the process; she believes she should be able to "opt in" rather than "opt out." She said she sent an opt-out letter to Magnolia Insurance Co., only to receive another takeout letter, from Homeowners Choice Insurance Co.

"Whatever it is they're doing, it's backwards," Ames said. "They talk about making things easier for the senior years. Well, this is a joke."

After months battling to get reimbursed from Homewise and back with Citizens, the Mackenrows thought they were finished untangling the mess. But last month they received another takeout notice, this time from Magnolia. Again, they have opted out and are hoping it works this time without all the hassles.

The burden is on Citizens policyholders to regularly check their mail for takeout letters and other insurance information, Kuczwanski said. "Maybe it's an unfortunate side effect of living in Florida."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

Citizens Insurance 'opt-out,' 'takeout' system nettlesome 11/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 7:37pm]
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