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Citizens Insurance Is Substandard On Purpose, CEO Says

Citizens is doing its best to provide an inferior product, the president of Florida's last-resort property insurer told an industry conference...

By Charles Elmore, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Nov. 30--ORLANDO -- Citizens is doing its best to provide an inferior product, the president of Florida's last-resort property insurer told an industry conference Thursday.

"The Citizens product is an inferior product by design," Barry Gilway said at the Florida Chamber of Commerce Insurance Summit in Orlando. "It's not stopping the flow of policies."

Gilway said such steps as not covering pool cages and outbuildings or homes worth more than $1 million are part of a plan not to compete effectively with private insurers. State-run Citizens is Florida's largest insurer with nearly 1.5 million customers.

In Palm Beach County, the growth of Citizens to 141,000 customers reflects decisions by name-brand insurers such as State Farm and Allstate to drop local customers, state data shows. Many homeowners did not seek out Citizens but found it was the only option available.

The Citizens president praised the work of individual company employees as exemplary, even as he acknowledged a mission of making its products unpalatable.

"We tried to make ourselves as unattractive as we possibly can," Gilway said. That has "frustrated" customers, he said.

Plans to "depopulate" Citizens by pushing customers to private insurers could see the company shrink to about 1.2 million customers in 2013, according to budget projections the company revealed this week.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation announced Thursday the approval of up to 65,990 more policies to be removed from Citizens by five Florida domestic insurance companies starting on Jan. 8.

That's in addition to 310,000 policies approved for removal in November and December.

Florida Peninsula Insurance Co. of Boca Raton said it will take up to 15,000 more customers in January after pledging to take up to 45,000 in November. Others looking to add customers in January include Southern Oak Insurance Co. (10,000), Heritage Property & Casualty Co. (20,000) and United Property & Casualty Co. (20,990).

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Still, Gilway said it's too much to expect Citizens will disappear any time soon. Mobile homes, certain homes near the coast and others will likely remain in the last-resort insurer for many years to come.

Gilway said a continuing problem is "rate inadequacy" in some areas, mentioning Monroe County, parts of the Tampa Bay area and others. The company's rate hikes are capped at 10 percent a year by law.

In other action at the conference, personal injury protection car insurance rates are going down on average only about one-fourth of the way toward a 10 percent reduction targeted under a new law, state officials said.

Among the first 44 rate filings approved, the average decrease was 2.5 percent, said Sandra Starnes, an official with the state's Office of Insurance Regulation. Approvals ranged from a 25 percent PIP reduction to a 41.5 percent increase, but only about one third of the Oct. 1 filings have been approved.

A law passed in the spring severely cut back PIP benefits, eliminating massage and acupuncture and limiting non-emergency care to $2,500 in the name of combatting fraud. In return, insurers were supposed to reduce rates on the state-mandated coverage by 10 percent Oct. 1 and 25 percent by 2014 or say why not.

State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said he was "comfortable" that if the law survives court challenges PIP savings will be eventually be 25 percent or more.

An actuarial firm reported to state officials that PIP savings under the law should range from 14 percent to 25 percent.

Some legislators, consumer groups and lawyers have blasted the law that Gov. Rick Scott made one his top legislative priorities. They portray it as a favor to the insurance industry that won't really help drivers. One lawmaker said the biggest lie of 2012 was that PIP rates were going to come down.

Industry groups said the expectation of immediate savings under the bill has created some problems.

"Since the end of the session we're playing a really tough expectations game," said Michael Carlson, executive director of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, which represents big car insurers. He said it will take time to see the full effects.

Some insurers say legal costs and other expenses mean they cannot bring bills down. One group has challenged the law's constitutionality, and other suits are expected by early next year.

PIP represents about 20 percent of the bill for many drivers. In some company filings, modest PIP savings are offset by increases in other parts of the bill.

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(c)2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Visit The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) at www.palmbeachpost.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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