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Citizens may be wasteful, but private insurers are the real problem

The pay raises at Citizens Property Insurance look bad, no doubt about that.

As do the lavish hotel rooms, the fancy dinners and the empty liquor bottles that have found their way on to far too many expense accounts.

So, yes, you have every right to be annoyed. And you should absolutely question why a state-run company has a different set of rules for its executives.

Just as long as you understand this isn't the core problem.

The transgressions at Citizens are penny ante stuff compared to this state's serious lack of regulation and oversight when it comes to private property insurers.

Look at it this way:

Citizens has been on a six-month bender of bad headlines. The company has raised rates. It has decreased coverage. It has had reports of supervisors removing undergarments and dancing on the bar at Tampa's Coyote Ugly during a company retreat.

"We tried to make ourselves as unattractive as we possibly can," Citizens president Barry Gilway told a Chamber of Commerce insurance summit last year.

And yet Citizens can't give its customers away.

Worried that Citizens is carrying too many policies, the state has been actively shoving homeowners toward private insurers in recent months. Citizens officials even proposed handing $350 million to other insurance companies as an incentive to take on policies.

And still, hundreds of thousands of customers have refused to go.

So why, you might ask, is Citizens finding it so difficult to pare its list of policyholders despite this campaign of consumer-unfriendly rates and coverage?

Because we have so little faith in private insurers.

As much hand-wringing as Gov. Rick Scott and legislators are doing about the state's insurance exposure, the reality is that Citizens is in far better shape with its reserve funds than a large number of private companies.

The problem, as wonderfully detailed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota a few years ago, is insurance companies have set up a shell game of subsidiaries that maximize profits and minimize exposure. The sleight of hand works like this:

1. By paying "fees'' to their own shell corporations, insurers simply move money from one pocket into another.

2. This means their insurance books show they're nearly broke, which means they can lobby the Legislature for additional rate increases.

3. And since their reserves are dangerously low, it leads to the real possibility that they cheerfully go bankrupt in the case of a catastrophic storm.

According to the Herald-Tribune series, the overhead costs (i.e., those sneaky subsidiary fees) were 50 percent higher here than the national average. Insurance execs received about $70 million in bonuses and perks from 2006 to 2008, which works out to nearly $400,000 per big shot.

So when Citizens board chairman Carlos Lacasa writes an op-ed explaining that pay raises were necessary to keep his executives from fleeing to high-paying jobs with private companies, he probably isn't exaggerating.

Which makes you wonder:

Instead of worrying about a handful of fancy meals from a state-run company, why aren't our politicians demanding more accountability and oversight for private insurers?

Citizens may be wasteful, but private insurers are the real problem 02/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 10:24pm]
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