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Hurricane Michael: There are still 18,000 open claims. Florida lawmakers want answers.

Nearly a year after the storm, 18,000 claims are still open.
This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm. [Photo courtesy of NOAA] [NOAA]
Published Sep. 17
Updated Oct. 9

Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier defended the companies handling Hurricane Michael claims, telling lawmakers on Tuesday that he couldn’t think of a single instance of companies not paying claims on time.

But Altmaier acknowledged that people aren’t happy about how many claims are still open.

“We are certainly hearing a high level of frustration,” he said.

Altmaier told the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee that more than 18,000 claims remain open from Hurricane Michael, nearly a year after the Category 5 storm made landfall near Mexico Beach.

But why those claims are still open is a mystery. Altmaier told senators that of the open claims, only 3,612 were open because of lawsuits.

By law, insurance companies are supposed to pay claims within 90 days.

But that requirement has so many loopholes that it’s almost meaningless. The three-month time span only applies after a claim is made, the insurer settles on how much is owed and then the homeowner agrees to that amount.

The law allows insurance companies to take months to provide an estimate

Altmaier said he hasn’t seen “even an instance of a violation of that statute” after Hurricane Michael. And he said the state’s Division of Consumer Services has seen an “extraordinarily low” number of complaints after the storm.

The office has taken no action against insurers following the storm, with the exception of sending letters to two insurance companies reminding them to send claims payments to the correct addresses.

That was just one part of Tuesday’s presentation that set the stage for another round of bills favorable to the insurance industry.

Insurance companies have long complained about lawyers driving up the cost of claims, and lawmakers last year passed multiple laws favorable to insurance companies last year.

But Altmaier said property insurance companies might still raise their rates this year, in spite of those changes.

Committee Chair Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, is a longtime insurance agent. He suggested the committee this session will look at passing additional laws long-sought by insurance companies, including cracking down on auto glass claims.

The presentation left Democratic lawmakers skeptical, and one Republican questioned if he was hearing the whole story about the outstanding insurance claims.

“I just think we hear one side of the story,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said after the meeting. “We just become a front for the industry in this committee, and it’s just kind of embarrassing.”

He implied that lawmakers were out of touch with what people in the Panhandle are going through.

“We’ve probably got five Republicans on this committee with a $30 million net worth between us all,” Lee, a wealthy homebuilder, said. “What do we know? What do we know about what it’s like to have an insurance company threatening you and you can’t get out and pay for a hotel room or something like that.”

“Plus, we have special privileges,” Lee added. “An insurance company wouldn’t screw us in a million years.”

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