It’s a homeowner’s nightmare. A Category 4 hurricane blasts your house, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. It will be a hard road back, but at least insurance will cover the damage and help you to rebuild. But then it doesn’t.
A Washington Post investigation, carried on the front page of the Tampa Bay Times, recounted what happened to several policyholders, including some with regional carriers Heritage Property & Casualty and Florida Peninsula Insurance Co. Terry and Mary Sebastian are a retired couple who live in Rotonda West, which was hammered by Hurricane Ian. The insurance adjuster estimated it would cost about $200,000 to replace their roof, tear out the wet, ruined insulation and dehumidify the entire house. He sent in that estimate. He said that when he later checked, the report, which still carried his name, had been changed without consulting him. Now the couple was to receive only $27,000 from Heritage.
The Post investigation found example after example of similar horror stories with insurance companies, including some who would receive nothing at all because the damage claims were reduced to below their deductibles.
Florida’s property insurance market has been in crisis for years and been spiraling downward. A Florida homeowner pays three times the national average for property insurance, if they can get it at all without having to resort to state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. The Legislature has nipped at the edges of the problem in special sessions, most recently in December, when lawmakers made it harder to sue insurers, in hopes of discouraging frivolous lawsuits and stabilizing premiums. This Editorial Board has suggested studying a different path, separating hurricane (wind) coverage from normal perils like fire and theft. Florida is uniquely exposed to hurricanes, and that problem is only going to worsen with climate change and sea-level rise. But if the state took on hurricane wind coverage, the market for fire and theft and other routine perils would be more like the rest of the United States — actuarially predictable each year — and thus, more competitive.
But none of those thought experiments anticipated the problems people might face even if they already have property insurance. They have paid for coverage, and they should get it. The Legislature is in session, and this should be the subject of hearings to get to the bottom of this. If there is potential fraud, Attorney General Ashley Moody should be investigating. So should Florida’s insurance regulators.
Therein lies a problem. Unlike most states, Florida’s insurance regulation and enforcement is split across two bodies — the Office of Insurance Regulation, run by Michael Yaworsky, who was appointed to the job just this week, and the Department of Financial Services, headed by Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. This diluted, uncertain authority can make it hard for aggrieved parties to even know where to turn for help. It would make much more sense to settle those responsibilities under the roof of just one agency. There would be clear lines of authority, responsibility and accountability.
State data this month show that of more than 700,000 homeowner and other claims from Hurricane Ian, roughly a third have been rejected or remain unpaid even though the 90-day window to pay or deny a claim ended in December. If even some insured homeowners aren’t meaningfully covered, Florida’s property insurance problem is worse than imagined. It’s time to focus on accountability as well as affordability.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.