TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s insurance consumer help line is often the first resort for homeowners looking for help battling their insurance company.
If they can reach it, that is. It’s only open three hours a day.
For months, callers to the help line (877-MY-FL-CFO) on any afternoon have been greeted with a recorded message: “In order to better serve all of our customers, our updated insurance help line hours are 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday.”
The cutbacks to the call line, which used to operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., are the product of a surge in complaints against property insurance companies since Hurricane Ian and staffing shortages at the Department of Financial Services.
State lawmakers are aware of the shortage and could assign more money this year to the Department of Financial Services, led by the state’s elected chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis.
The toll-free insurance consumer help line has been in existence for decades and is enshrined in state law under the Homeowner Claims Bill of Rights. Under state law, insurers are required to inform homeowners of the Bill of Rights, including the hotline, within 14 days of receiving a claim. The help line also takes calls about other types of insurance.
Floridians can call the help line to make a complaint against their insurer, resolve an insurance dispute or ask questions about their rights as an insurance customer. Between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, the help line answered 222,249 calls, or more than 600 per day, department records show.
About one-third of complaints against insurance companies come from the help line, the department’s director of consumer services, Greg Thomas, told a Senate committee on Wednesday. The rest come through the state’s website.
More than half of the positions to take calls and handle insurance complaints are vacant, Thomas said. And after Hurricane Ian hit the state in September, the office was “inundated” with complaints against insurers, he said. The “vast majority” have been over claim-handling delays.
That combination caused the office to cut back the hours the help line would be available.
“We had a choice either to not deal with complaints that we have received or to continue to answer calls all day long,” Thomas said.
Democratic lawmakers said limiting the hotline to just three hours doesn’t even allow working Floridians to call during their lunch breaks.
“We can’t have a part-time insurance consumer hotline when we have a full-time property insurance crisis in Florida,” Rep. Hillary Cassel, D-Dania Beach, said in a statement. Cassel’s law practice represents residential and commercial policyholders in property claims against their insurance carriers.
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Cassel also questioned the priorities of Patronis, a restaurateur who has collected nearly $2 million in political contributions from insurance companies, executives and agents.
Patronis has encouraged lawmakers to change the laws to make it harder to sue insurance companies. Property insurers have blamed excessive lawsuits for Floridians’ high premiums, which are the highest in the nation at about $4,200.
The solution has not led to lower homeowners’ rates so far. This week, First Community Insurance Co. requested an overall 44.8% rate increase, Kin Insurance Network asked for an overall 61.5% rate increase and American Strategic Insurance Corp. and ASI Preferred Insurance Corp. are requesting near-20% rate increases. State-run Citizens Property Insurance approved an average 14.2% increase Wednesday.
In a news release Wednesday, Patronis said he was holding another “insurance village” in April for residents to meet with insurance representatives in Southwest Florida to help resolve outstanding Ian claims.
“My agency has been working overtime to help policyholders,” he said in a statement.
The chairperson for the Senate’s Banking and Insurance Committee, Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said he wanted to see the help line staffed up and quickly responding to consumers.
He also said he’s discussed teleworking options with the department. The department said Wednesday afternoon it allows the help line operators to telework “so long as they meet basic requirements.”
“It’s 2023. Lots of people are working from home,” said Boyd, who owns an insurance agency. “Would we not be better served as a state if we had the ability for people to work from home?”
The Department of Financial Services has recently added more staff to handle calls and complaints, Thomas said. That has allowed the help line to be open for new hours, starting Monday: 8 a.m. to noon.
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