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Balancing interest of clients, insurers

As the state's consumer advocate for insurance, Steve Burgess would like nothing more than to protect Florida homeowners and help solve the state's current insurance crisis.

But Burgess isn't quite sure what the public wants.

At a recent hearing on Allstate Insurance Co.'s plans to drop 300,000 policyholders, Burgess said, the angry audience cheered when one All-state customer stood up and demanded that the insurer be forced to keep its customers in the state.

The same crowd yelled its support when another customer suggested Allstate be tossed out of the state.

With Florida homeowners in such a state of high anxiety, Burgess has never been in greater demand to assert his role as consumer advocate at the state Department of Insurance in Tallahassee.

Whether Burgess is in the driver's seat or the hot seat remains to be seen.

"I want to tap into the frustrations of policyholders and try to focus that frustration in policy terms," Burgess said in an interview last week.

"On the other hand, the solutions to the insurance crisis are difficult and complex, and it can be a disservice for me to ride the swell of public anger."

Burgess, a 45-year-old lawyer, calls his get-tough attitude with insurance companies part of the "game of brinksmanship."

Florida should have firm regulation, he said. But if it goes too far and drives a major insurer out of the state, that does not help the consumer.

To some observers, it's not clear whether Burgess has the clout as an employee of the insurance department to make sure Floridians do not fall victim to the powerful insurance industry. Burgess said he isn't sure himself at times.

"Burgess works for Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and is handicapped because he has no staff or resources to work with," said Monte Belote of the Florida Consumer Action Network in Tampa. "On the plus side, we have found Burgess to be competent and to have the consumer's best interests at heart."

Burgess, a Florida native with craggy features and an easy laugh, is the first consumer advocate at the insurance department. The $60,000-a-year position was created in 1990, and Burgess filled it in September of that year.

As a former deputy to Florida Public Counsel Jack Shreve, Burgess readily acknowledges he would rather have an independent position as a consumer advocate for insurance.

But he said he took the job anyway, fully aware of its potential limits.

In recent months, hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners have been threatened with a potential loss of insurance or sharp increases in insurance rates. A six-month moratorium has put a halt to the efforts by insurers to cancel many policyholders.

Burgess has no lack of ideas for ways to make the insurance market better.

He supports Gallagher's plan to create a catastrophe fund in the state that could be used to help insurers handle losses in the event of another major hurricane.

He wants to create a computer system that could tell insurers what areas in the state are meeting stricter building codes.

He would like to package all that Florida is doing for the insurance industry and go calling on large regional insurers that are not doing business in the state.

But fair-weather insurers, those that try to flee the state when times get tough, especially annoy Burgess.

"Our job is to try and help the insurers, but not by letting them cut bait and dump customers," he said.

For those companies that won't offer the state's homeowners insurance, Burgess would like the option he calls the "ultimate hammer" _ to halt all of their business in the state, including life, health and auto insurance.

Burgess went to Tallahassee as a freshman at Florida State University. Aside from a few brief excursions, he has stayed ever since. He earned an accounting and law degree, then moved into government.

Burgess spent 11 years in the Office of the Public Counsel, which represents power, telephone and other utility consumers in cases before the Public Service Commission. Burgess eventually became second-in-command to Shreve, the public counsel, before moving on to become consumer advocate for insurance.

Burgess and his wife share their home with three dogs, two cocker spaniels and a golden retriever. When time allows, Burgess plays handball and volleyball and is a member of his church and department softball teams.

At the Department of Insurance, known as DOI, the team has a nickname: DOIT.

For Florida homeowners, Burgess offered some simple advice.

Be aware that there is a moratorium that prohibits most cancellations of homeowner policies, he said.

Keep up with news reports about your specific company's plans and decisions by the department.

"And if anything appears to be contrary, call us on the toll-free number," he urged. That's (800) 342-2762.