Who is looking out for policyholders? - FOX 13 News

Who is looking out for policyholders?

Updated: Wednesday, 29 Feb 2012, 11:03 PM EST
TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Property insurance is a hot button topic in Tallahassee, and it is the function of the Office of Insurance Regulation to look out for homeowners to ensure fair rates.

But some believe the state agency might not be looking out for your best interests after all.

During a recent debate on HB 245, a bill that would depopulate Citizens Insurance, Representative Evan Jenne (D-Dania Beach) said this about the Office of Insurance Regulation, or OIR.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know if you read anything coming out of that office. OIR stands for the Office of Industry Rubber-stamping," Jenne said.

Attorney Sean Shaw agrees with that assessment, and believes the deck is stacked against homeowners even before an insurance bill comes before lawmakers.

"When you elect your representative, you expect that person to represent your interests. You don't expect that person to take a bill written by the insurance industry and say what a wonderfully consumer friendly bill this is, and that became the law of the state of Florida," Shaw said.

Shaw is the founder of the consumer group Policyholders of Florida. His organization obtained a stack of e-mails under public records law that he says are extremely troubling.

"I didn't see any consumer reps on those strings of e-mails. I didn't see anybody but the private market and Citizens and OIR splitting up the pie," he said.

The e-mails were written last year and show communication that looks to him like close cooperation from people who are not supposed to be on the same team.

"I don't expect that from Citizens and OIR, I expect more. Citizens is the people's insurance company. OIR is the Office of Insurance Regulation, that's the regulatory body for the state of Florida. Those entities should not be in cahoots with lobbyists," he said.

But that's what it looks like to Shaw. He finds one e-mail from an insurance industry lobbyist last year especially troubling. It says, "guys, that meeting was not our finest hour," and concludes "Before we get back in front of a legislator, we might do well to have a chorus practice one more time."

This kind of cooperation also concerns Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey).

"The only voices being heard are insurance industry representatives and regulators. The voices missing from this discussion are those that belong to the consumers. My question is, while this bill was being developed, who was asking questions on behalf of policyholders? Apparently nobody was," Fasano said.

Senator Garrett Richter (R-Naples) is an outspoken supporter of property insurance reform legislation in Tallahassee and he sees nothing wrong with the e-mails.

"I believe good policy is a result of collaborative discussions among interested and impacted parties. Relative to insurance issues, I believe it is important to have the Office of Insurance Regulation at the table in all cases," Richter said. "OIR is responsible for regulating the insurance industry in order to ensure consumer protections. Consumer protections include rate approvals, as well as the sustainability and solvency of the underwriting companies."

Richters says he is more concerned with the long-term impact of legislative decisions than short term popularity.

"Florida will have to deal with a catastrophic storm at some point in the future. How we are positioned to pay will be dependent on how we address the hard decisions that reduce the public exposure. These decisions relate to the size of Citizens and the CAT fund," he said.

We requested an on-camera interview with someone from OIR to talk about the e-mails, but instead, we were sent this brief e-mail written by Jack McDermott, director of communications for the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation:

"As subject matter experts on insurance, the offices general counsel and legislative director are frequently asked to provide input on bills about how potential law changes may affect the insurance marketplace and legislators constituents."

The agency's written response really didn't really answer our questions and neither did the e-mail response for Citizens Insurance, which came from Christine Ashburn, the director of legislative and external affairs with Citizens Property Insurance Corporation:

"Citizens did work with the office of insurance regulation, legislators, members of the insurance industry and other interested parties on a piece of legislation that was aimed at returning Citizens to the insurer of last resort. Various groups with similar policy goals came together to draft legislation that was ultimately filed and debated publicly by policymakers in the Florida House and Senate."

Shaw says it's why insurance rates in Florida keep rising.

"You wonder why insurance rates keep creeping up, creeping up, creeping up," says Shaw. "It's because of little innocuous sounding lines in a piece of legislation that now you see now how it gets in there. They are being drafted by the industry, for the industry, with help from Citizens and OIR."

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