Sunday, May 20, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Goodbye, Citizens and hello, Larry's Bait, Tackle & Insurance

This was probably inevitable. After repeated failed attempts to pass me around like a beaten plow horse, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. finally prevailed in foisting my homeowner's coverage off onto Larry's Bait & Tackle & Property Insurance. • It was only a matter of time before the invite to become part of Big Bertha's Bloomers and Property Insurance would get lost amid the rest of the junk mail, too late for me to opt out of this golden opportunity to do business with a company serving Florida's property insurance needs since — last week.

Don't you suspect there is a vast bureaucracy within Citizens whose sole function is to ensure that millions of Floridians dedicate every waking moment wrestling with their homeowner's insurance coverage?

Every few weeks, another missive would arrive informing me that my Citizens coverage was being assumed by Soprano Brothers Pizza and Property Insurance. And for the umpteenth time I would fire back the form declining the offer — until I missed the last "Dear Sucker" letter.

Maybe it got jammed between the Vermont Country Store catalog and the Garden of Eternal Bliss cemetery plot offer.

At first I was angry with myself for overlooking this wonderful opportunity to become part of the Crazy Homer's Fried Mullet Emporium and Property Insurance family of dupes. You would have thought since I had rejected Citizens' take-out letters more often than the NFL has rejected Tim Tebow, Citizens would have figured out I wasn't interested in switching companies.

Then I had an epiphany. Sure, I had been unceremoniously dumped from Citizens into the clutches of Miss Adelaide's Soapworks and Property Insurance. But what difference did it make?

It's not as if had I ever made a claim on my Citizens policy, the insurance industry's answer to Kato Kaelin would ever pay out any money to me.

Consider the plight of Dunedin's Michael Dupre, who filed a claim with Citizens to fix a sinkhole underneath his home. For two years Citizens balked, insisting Dupre use a cheaper solution rather than a more extensive fix. Citizens wouldn't budge. Last week, Dupre's home was swallowed up.

Citizens can afford to drag its feet. The company takes in $2.2 billion in annual premiums, more than enough to cover the $2 million a month it spends on legal fees aggressively fighting rejected customer claims.

Sometimes the bureaucratic breath-holding works. Sometimes not. As Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Mary Ellen Klas has noted, between January 2011 and June 2013 Citizens was ordered to pay $16 million to 177 different law firms who successfully challenged the denial of claims. In the meantime, those customers were forced to wait and wait and wait to receive what they were entitled to receive.

There has been great wailing across the land over millions of Americans who were dropped from their health insurance despite President Barack Obama's promise they could remain on their plans after the launch of the Affordable Care Act. Fair enough.

So Obama relented and proposed that if gullible individuals wanted to remain on their do-nothing, cheap plans that barely cover Band-Aids rather than sign up for real coverage, go ahead. Just don't get sick.

But where is the same outrage over a Florida homeowners insurance market that sticks customers with policies with companies they never heard of, never asked for and in all likelihood never will be able to satisfy a claim?

For Floridians forced to enter the Citizens parallel universe, there are similarities with the Affordable Care Act. Homeowners get bounced from policies with reputable carriers only to find themselves funneled into Citizens, which has more of an aversion to paying claims than New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to drinking a Big Gulp.

Then Citizens sheds policies to Skippy's Haggis-on-a-Stick and Property Insurance, serving Florida homeowners since 20 minutes ago. How comforting.

So to satisfy mortgage companies we're stuck with a piece of paper that says we have homeowner's insurance, even though Citizens' takeout companies such as Spanky's Lawn Care and Property Insurance have precious little history, experience or capital to give customers confidence that their claims will be expeditiously honored.

We're just numbers — and negative digits at that.

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