Editorial: Sweetheart insurance deal hurts consumers

Published May 22, 2013

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will never win any popularity contests, and here is another reason why. The state-run insurer's board narrowly decided Wednesday to give away $52 million to a new St. Petersburg insurer with no track record and questionable leadership that will take up to 60,000 Citizens policies. It's a bad deal for Citizens, for homeowners who may be sucked into the small start-up and eventually pay higher rates, and for the state.

Gov. Rick Scott, who defends this corporate welfare, and Citizens board members keep finding more ways to hurt consumers. Florida has been fortunate to avoid direct hits by hurricanes for seven years, and Citizens has a record cash surplus of $6.4 billion. Despite all of the scare tactics about the potential for large assessments after major hurricanes to cover insured losses, Citizens has enough available capital to cover losses from a 1-in-58-year hurricane without any assessments. But the governor and the Citizens board are determined to reduce the size of the insurer regardless of the cost and the poor track record of too many start-up private insurers that may bite off more than they can handle.

Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance Co. just opened nine months ago and has about 40,000 customers — all or most of them former Citizens customers. Yet the Citizens board voted 3-2 to more than double Heritage's number of customers and increase the company's capital by roughly 50 percent. Scott says it is Citizens' responsibility to act in the best interest of its policyholders, but the only interest this sweetheart deal serves is Heritage's. It also appears to fly in the face of the intent of the Legislature, where House Speaker Will Weatherford helped stop Citizens' plan last year to loan private insurers $350 million to take policies. The details of Heritage's unusual arrangement are different, but the result is the same: Citizens policyholders are subsidizing an unproven private insurer, and those whose policies are taken by Heritage may wind up with less reliable coverage and higher rates after three years than they would have if they stayed with Citizens. It's no coincidence that Citizens' decision occurred after the legislative session ended even though the discussions with Heritage have been going on since March.

Citizens president Barry Gilway praised Heritage during Wednesday's meeting and called it well-qualified with "exceptional management.'' The company's best qualification appears to be its $140,000 in political contributions to the governor and state Republican Party in the few months it has been in business. Gilway also has an odd definition of "quality management.'' Heritage's president, Richard Widdicombe, has previously run insurance companies in Florida that were fined by the state for dozens of violations. Its vice president of claims operations, Paul G. Neilson, worked for Citizens and oversaw its controversial reinspection program that cost 250,000 homeowners more than $200 million in increased premiums. So the same guy who helped bring in millions to Citizens through a suspect reinspection program now is taking tens of millions from Citizens for his new private company. How convenient.

There is nothing inherently wrong with reducing the size of Citizens if private companies are willing to assume the policies and policyholders have a choice in going or staying. What is wrong is pursuing that strategy at the expense of Citizens policyholders and diverting tens of millions from Citizens to a politically connected start-up company with no track record. Floridians deserve better.