Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense is bashing insurance companies handling Hurricane Michael claims, saying they were the “No. 1 obstacle” to recovery and accusing them of being “terribly unhelpful.”
“I’m on my seventh adjuster for my home. Seventh adjuster!” Bense, a Republican, said at a Thursday news conference advocating for more help in the Panhandle, nearly a year after the hurricane made landfall.
“Insurance companies, just frankly, try to beat you down,” he said. “They’re trying to wear me out. I’m not the type of guy to pick that fight with. But still, it’s a problem.”
His comments stand in contrast to what insurance regulators and some lawmakers have been saying about insurance companies’ slow response after the Category 5 hurricane made landfall near Mexico Beach on Oct. 10.
As of last month, more than 18,000 claims, about 12 percent of all the storm’s claims, were still open, and Panhandle residents have complained of insurance companies giving low-ball estimates or dragging out the process.
But in a presentation to lawmakers last month, Office of Insurance Regulation Commissioner David Altmaier mostly defended the insurers, saying he hadn’t seen “even an instance” of a company violating the law.
Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, a registered insurance agent who is also chairman of the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee, suggested at the meeting that lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session will pass additional laws long-sought by the insurance industry.
The presentation and follow-up questions were so favorable to the insurance industry that Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, walked away in disgust.
"We just become a front for the (insurance) industry in this committee, and it’s just kind of embarrassing,” Lee said afterward.
Altmaier said Friday, however, that he heard Bense’s frustration “loud and clear."
“The last thing survivors need is to feel left behind by their insurance company,” Altmaier said in a statement. “We continue to hear anecdotes and complaints from consumers, lawmakers, and others and there is clearly more going on with claims handling that needs further investigation. What Speaker Bense describes is a potential example of an insurance company mishandling its claims process, and no consumer should have to go through that."
He said he was prohibited by law from discussing investigations, but he encouraged Floridians to report insurance problems to the state’s Division of Consumer Services.
“I can assure you that we are leaving no stone unturned,” he said in a statement.
William Stander, executive director of the Florida Property & Casualty Association, which represents Florida-based insurers, said public adjusters bore some of the blame for the outstanding claims. Public adjusters are hired by homeowners to come up with independent damage estimates.
“The most difficult claims remain including those that involve flood damage or are under the control of public adjusters,” Stander said in a statement. “As Floridians ourselves, we recognize that we are all in this together. In regard to the remaining open Hurricane Michael claims, our members are working even now to resolve them in an expeditious manner.”
Bense, who served as House speaker from 2004 to 2006, disputed that lawsuits were the overriding problem, saying that people in the Panhandle are not the type to go running to lawyers to solve their problems.
His comments came during a news conference for Rebuild 850, an organization created to help the Panhandle recover from the storm.
Getting money into the hands of homeowners and businesses is crucial to rebuilding. If the area doesn’t quickly rebuild, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate had a dire prediction.
“You’ve got about five years,” Fugate said Thursday. “My experience tells me that after five years, if you have not grown your tax base back to the level you need to provide services, we start laying off the school board. We start laying off the sheriff’s office. We quit doing maintenance on the roads.”
“Our measure of recovery is going to be our tax base,” he added.
Bense showed a photo of a demolished business he said was taken on Monday. He said he didn’t know who owned the businesses or why it was still a mound of rubble, but he had a guess.
“I’ll bet you they’re insured, and I’ll bet you they’re getting jacked around by their insurance company,” he said.
Bense said he rode out the storm at his Panama City home. Since then, his insurance company has assigned him adjusters from all over the country, dragging out the process, he said.
While he situation has been frustrating, Bense, a wealthy businessman, said he sympathizes with the experiences of other people in the Panhandle.
“Think about the average working man and working woman, that are trying to deal with these insurance companies, that are getting murdered," he said.
“I’ve never picked on insurance companies in my life until I’ve heard some of the stories that are out there, not from folks like me, but from the little guy, the little gal, that are having a hard time,” Bense added.