After a year as Florida's insurance consumer advocate, Robin Smith Westcott is still fighting the same fights. • Not just scuffles with insurance companies, but the fight to prove she truly is pro-consumer. • "One thing I get dinged on a lot is (an accusation) that I'm an industry shill," Westcott said. "But you can't talk to me and think I'm not absolutely passionate about doing some of these things to help our state." • Yes, she serves at the pleasure of Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who espouses a pro-business philosophy. And she has been tethered to the Tallahassee legislative scene since graduating from law school at Florida State University. • On the other hand, Westcott, 44, isn't shy about calling out the powers that be. She thinks the Legislature dropped the ball on a bigger property insurance fix. She jabs at Florida Gov. Rick Scott for refusing to set up a health care exchange to implement the new Affordable Care Act (or as some say, "Obamacare"). • And she has got a new crusade, going after insurers who systemically deny coverage by alleging that some minor or irrelevant mistakes in documents that people signed when taking out a policy are "material misrepresentations" that let them void coverage.
Case in point: a woman who had a home in her own name was denied a claim because her former boyfriend, who was listed on the initial insurance policy but no longer lived in the house, had failed to disclose a bankruptcy.
"I've been admonishing some companies … that to deny claims based on this 'material misrepresentation' clause is just ridiculous," she said, telling insurers: "That's why you get a bad reputation … It's abominable."
Westcott traces her Florida heritage back "at least six generations," with a grandmother who was part American Indian and a great-grandfather named Young Blood Potter. She grew up in a farm outside Chattahoochee near the Georgia border.
It's a mere 44-mile trip from Chattahoochee to Tallahassee, but Westcott feels she has already come a long way.
What's the role of the insurance consumer advocate?
The most important thing I can do is talk to consumers and hear what's going on in the marketplace … to gather data and make sure that part of what we're talking about in the marketplace is given to policymakers.
Can you give an example?
One of the very first things (that) dominated my first year was the PIP (personal injury protection) reforms. I thought the roundtable (that Westcott's office coordinated) went very well. Part of the discussion focused on who is benefiting in the system. We were able to get that data and show where the costs were and what was being spent where.
Looking back, is passage of the PIP auto fraud bill your single biggest achievement?
PIP is probably the greatest work product, but to me one of the greatest accomplishments is being able to connect with consumers. To see and talk to people and understand some of their concerns. What I've really been most effective in is (highlighting) problems in such a way that people understand the connectivity of the issues.
What is the biggest problem at Citizens Property Insurance? High rates? The cutback on coverage? Overestimating the replacement costs for damaged homes?
The reason we have so many people that are disenfranchised by Citizens Property is because Citizens has 1.5 million policies, and who among us thinks that can be manageable?
Certainly, we worried about the evaluation for replacement cost values … but what I'm hearing about now is the inspection process. I think people were just so confused (that) different professionals would tell them different things about their house and about what credits were due and about what needed to be replaced, like a roof or something electrical.
Citizens aside, are private homeowners insurance companies charging fair rates or are they too high?
It's hard for me to say. I think there is some justification when you're talking about our catastrophic risk. I'm a little concerned that in some places it may just not be an affordable or insurable risk. So what we have now is a subsidy system and it's called Citizens. We have to decide now if we've done this in the fairest way. I have a great deal more sympathy for the 75-year-old lady on St. Pete Beach with a 1,500-square-foot cinder block house who has lived there since 1953 than (the owner of) that high-rise skyscraper sitting on the beach.
What do you tell that 75-year-old homeowner struggling to find affordable coverage?
I don't know what to say exactly. We try to go through and help them identify any coverages they don't need.
I think that's where we turn to policymakers and say there has to be some sanity to this. If we're going to let rates go to where the models tell us they need to be, we've got to look at how we make it affordable for our citizens. Otherwise, we have not solved this problem. I'll be honest. I don't know the answer to that, but there's got to be one if we're going to sustain our state.
Do people turn to the idea of slashing rates as an easy fix?
It has a lot to do with that. I will hear people like Sen. (Mike) Fasano talk (on behalf of consumers) and I will agree with him on many of his points. And I will agree with people on the opposite side on many of their points. There aren't going to be any easy answers, and we can't keep putting things off every year with (legislation) tweaking this one day, and tweaking that another day, and think everything is going to be okay.
How independent are you in reporting to Florida's chief financial officer? Any political pressures?
I don't really feel that. When I talk to the CFO about certain issues … he is one of those people who really thinks through things at a much higher level. I really feel like I've learned more through him, but he never tells me to "go do that" or "go do this." I've never felt that from the governor's office.
Many times I will admonish companies. I don't necessarily do it in a public forum.
Do you have the staff to respond directly to consumer concerns?
We have a total of six folks here … It used to be this office had 15 to 20 people. Budget cuts have really impacted us. So we try to keep to policy issues. We can be more effective on the bigger issues to make sure it makes it out of this building.
What's your take on the Affordable Health Care Act being upheld by the Supreme Court? By and large, is it positive or negative for consumers, and why?
I'm concerned about the application of the Health Care Act from the perspective of what it's going to cost. Ultimately, someone has to pay for it … and that may be a shocking number.
I thought Justice (John) Roberts' opinion was absolutely brilliant. I thought it was so well thought-out and so well-reasoned. I was so blown away by that.
The biggest thing that concerns me is Florida's response. I've seen things from the governor's office about not following through with the mandate, and I'm a bit concerned. If we can control our own destiny with setting up the (health care) exchange and things that are mandated under the law, we should probably do so. Controlling our own destiny is probably a better idea than letting the (federal) government control it. If we move into January of next year and we haven't either overturned this law or set up the infrastructure to address it, I think Floridians lose.
How long do you see yourself staying in this role?
I don't know. I'm here as long as the CFO wants … We'll get through his first administration and see if he'd like to change it up or not. I've really enjoyed this.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com.