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Guest Column
Our Florida home insurance bill jumped from $4,000 to $7,000. Gee, thanks, Legislature! | Column
Any meaningful solution — in a state like ours that’s basically a bullseye for hurricanes and increasingly at risk of flooding — is going to involve a boatload of public money.
Aerial photos on March 1 show damage to Fort Myers caused by Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in late September 2022.
Aerial photos on March 1 show damage to Fort Myers caused by Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in late September 2022. [ PATRICK CONNOLLY | Patrick Connolly ]
Published May 5

For years, Florida lawmakers ignored a looming insurance crisis. Then, with rates skyrocketing and companies fleeing the state, they scrambled to call not one, but two special sessions, vowing to help.

Scott Maxwell
Scott Maxwell [ Provided ]

Well, my wife and I saw what the Legislature’s version of help looks like a few months ago when our insurance bill jumped from $4,000 to $7,000. Any more “help“ like that and we’ll be eating cat food.

In reality, we’ll be just fine. But a growing number of Floridians are facing bills they can barely afford as prices skyrocket throughout the state.

The Insurance Information Institute predicted increases of 40% throughout Florida this year. Some companies have requested 60% hikes. And scores of Floridians are still being dropped by their carriers while the state-run Citizens Property Insurance keeps bloating.

This is an undeniable, mounting mess. So once again, GOP legislators — who have spent the better part of the past two years waging culture wars — have cobbled together another insurance bill.

But if you’re counting on this lowering your rates, bad news: It will not. That’s not my take. It’s the take of former GOP Sen. Jeff Brandes — one of the few lawmakers who repeatedly warned his colleagues to take action years ago and was largely ignored.

“Nothing in this bill lowers rates,” Brandes, who now runs the Florida Policy Project, said this week. “Nothing in this bill encourages more companies to come.”

Brandes and I have differing views on some aspects of reform — particularly as it relates to the transparency measures and regulations that subsidized insurance companies should face.

But we agree on three key things:

1. Despite years of yapping about fraud claims driving up costs and rates, Florida lawmakers have never cracked down on bad actors in any meaningful fashion.

2. The solutions they’re talking about now aren’t going to do much, if anything, to bring down rates.

3. Any meaningful solution — in a state like ours that’s basically a bullseye for hurricanes and increasingly at risk of flooding — is going to involve a boatload of public money.

Brandes and I may have varied thoughts on how that money should be spent. But the reality is that this problem — where the state-run insurance company is now covering millions of Floridians at increasingly high rates — requires a major investment and serious policy reform.

And that’s not good news for a Legislature that specializes in divisive bumper-sticker priorities — dragging Disney, fuming about drag queens and decrying woke-ism.

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When it comes to hard, serious policy work, they are either unwilling or incapable of getting the job done. At least when it comes to insurance.

A clear example of that is fraud. For years, lawmakers have blamed fraudulent claims for driving up insurance costs and driving companies out of the state. But they haven’t done squat from an enforcement standpoint.

“If you want talent in the Office of Insurance Regulation — which should be one of the most talented in the state — you have to pay for it,” Brandes said.

That seems obvious. If your city had a rash of burglaries, you’d beef up your burglary patrol. But Florida politicians have whined about fraud without ever dedicating serious resources to exposing, punishing and stopping it.

If they can set up a statewide election-crime police force to deal with fever-dream problems, you’d think they’d beef up their insurance team to deal with an actual financial nightmare.

But to really bring down prices, we need more competition among providers. Or we need to invest more in Citizens — and basically accept that a giant, costly state-run insurance company is the only way we’re going to be able to cover everyone in a state that’s both storm-ravaged and low-wage.

Few people really want that second option. Certainly not Brandes. But many of us aren’t super keen either on just handing over tax dollars to an industry with a track record of hosing its policy holders.

Just a few weeks ago, the Washington Post published a maddening investigative report that found Florida insurance companies were financially victimizing hurricane survivors by gutting their claims and payments — sometimes by as much as 90% of what the companies’ own adjusters said the homeowners were due. The piece featured an adjuster who said one insurance company took his report — which estimated $200,000 in valid claims for one home — and whittled it down to just $27,000 without his knowledge or consent.

Brandes prefers offering companies incentives to write Florida policies. That may be worth exploring — with a lot of checks and balances added in.

But here’s the bottom line: Either scenario — majorly subsidizing private industries or growing/transforming Citizens into something like a Florida version of Medicare for homeowners — is painful. They’re both costly, politically unpopular and involve a lot of hard work.

Unfortunately, most Florida politicians don’t want to do hard work or make unpopular moves. So they just keep screaming about critical race theory and transgender athletes. And while they scream, your rates keep rising.

I think we’re heading toward a pain point — where even the Floridians who used to laugh at the culture wars are going to stop laughing once they realize they can barely afford to stay in their homes. That may be when they start finally putting people in office who are more interested in solving problems than creating them.

© 2023 Orlando Sentinel. Reach Scott Maxwell at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com. Visit orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.