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  1. Florida Politics

Citizens Property Insurance aims to be more consumer-friendly in shedding policies

Published Sep. 30, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Citizens Property Insurance, already at a near-record low after shedding about 1 million policies in four years, aims to shrink even more.

But this time the state-run insurer of last resort is taking a more consumer-friendly approach.

After enduring a severe backlash for how policies were transferred to private carriers, Citizens' board this morning will consider ways to keep policyholders in mind as it discusses getting rid of another 130,000 policies by the end of 2016.

Gone already are scare letters warning of dramatic assessments if they remain in Citizens, even if not completely accurate. Also critical correspondence looking like junk mail has been changed, and prospective premium hikes from new insurers are being disclosed in advance for the first time. The burden is still on consumers to "opt out" of being sent to another insurance company.

"The opt-out letters were not as clear as they should have been," said Gary Aubuchon, a former state legislator and current Citizens board member. "We are listening to what the consumers are saying."

A key reform begins in October, when letters urging home­owners to switch to private insurers will include cost premium estimates for both the private provider who is seeking to take on the policy and Citizens, information not included in past letters.

Also, opt-out letters have been reworded to tone down a threat to customers who chose to remain in Citizens. Those letters warned of a 45 percent surcharge that could be needed to cover hurricane claims. But that language is a relic of a time when Citizens wasn't sitting on nearly an $8 billion surplus, reducing the likelihood of needing such a surcharge. Citizens has continued to build its surplus while enjoying a nine-year-plus string of no major hurricanes striking Florida.

Florida's elected Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who oversees the state's insurance consumer advocate, said Tuesday those letters were essentially "scare tactics" that didn't treat customers well.

Even how consumers receive letters urging them to switch to a private carrier has changed since earlier this year. In the past, letters were sent directly from private insurers informing residents they were being switched unless they exercised their opt-out rights. But many homeowners never saw the letters, mistaking them for junk mail. Now, Citizens is sending a letter from CEO Barry Gilway first to put property owners on alert that an official opt out letter is coming and naming the carrier.

Atwater said its good to see the reforms taking hold and seeing Citizens treat people more like customers.

"Our job is not just escorting them to the door," he said.

Atwater is also well aware of recurring concern from home­owners about the stability of many of the relatively new Florida-based companies that have cropped up to write insurance policies. He said the state needs to show consumers how these companies — far from the national household names — were tested to assure they have the staff and financial backing to handle claims when a storm hits.

Created in 2002 in a merger of the state's wind pool and former state-run property insurer known as the JUA, Citizens exploded in size as major insurers such as State Farm cut back covering what's viewed as the country's most hurricane-susceptible state. Citizens was saddled with 1.5 million policies as recently as 2012, making it the state's largest insurer. As of Tuesday, Citizens is down to 586,000 policies.

Citizens is under political pressure to shrink because the more policies it carries, the greater the potential financial hit on everyone who has insurance. Under state law, Citizens can bill even non-Citizen policy holders if it runs out of cash to pay damage claims after a major storm.

Aubuchon said the declining numbers show how much healthier the state's private insurance market is. He said thanks in part to having no major hurricanes since 2005 and dropping the size of Citizens, the state has seen a rebound and can turn Citizens back into what it is supposed to be.

"Over the last couple of years, we see it returning to being a insurer of last resort," he said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.