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Thousands Of Citizens Customers Could Be Switched

By Donna Gehrke-White, Sun Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 12--Thousand of customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. might be switched to other insurers without realizing they have a choice.

The state is allowing four private insurance companies to select nearly 100,000 policies to take over from Citizens by fall. Property owners can opt out of the switch, but the process has created confusion among policyholders, according to insurance agents and consumer advocates.

"It's a disaster -- no one understands," said Pembroke Pines insurance agent Jonathan D. Rausch, who has fielded calls from homeowners after insurance companies sent letters announcing that the state approved them to "take out" policies from Citizens.

Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Steve Burgess is concerned that some homeowners may not even open a letter from one of the state-approved companies.

"The question is: Do they read it?" he asked. If they don't, they might be switched to another company without knowing it, Burgess said.

Citizens, a government-created corporation, is still the state's largest property insurer with 933,422 policies, said Nicole Vinson, director of the Tampa-based nonprofit Policyholders of Florida. But Citizens is trying to reduce its customer load to reduce its risk and increase its ability to weather a disaster.

Some 119,434 Citizens policies have already been assumed by private insurers in the first seven months of this year.

On Friday, the Office of Insurance Regulation announced a new round of takeovers. It approved the removal from Citizens of up to 91,499 multiperil personal residential policies and 5,732 commercial lines polices.

Companies participating in the latest round are Heritage Property & Casualty Insurance Co. of St. Petersburg, SafePoint Insurance Co. of Tampa, Tower Hill Preferred Insurance Co. of Gainesville and Weston Insurance Co. of Coral Gables.

Tower Hill has been around since 1972, but none of the others have operated more than three years.

The four will send letters in the weeks ahead to policyholders they want to take over. The state insurance agency provides information about the private companies and their advantages over Citizens at its website, floir.com/Sections/PandC/TakeoutCompanies2.aspx, spokeswoman Amy Bogner said.

Homeowners who want to stay with Citizens are required to send in an opt-out form, which is included in the letters. In previous cases, the letters often did not include information about rates.

Citizens will send a follow-up letter that explains the benefits of private-market coverage and reminds customers that they can stay with Citizens, spokesman Michael Peltier said.

Ideally, Citizens would like to reduce its number of policies to 650,000 to 700,000, Peltier said. It's now down to 933,422 after reaching a peak of 1.4 million in April 2012.

Weston Insurance got involved in the "take-out" program because it wants to offer policies to homeowners who live near the coast, east of Interstate 95 in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, said Michael Lyons, president and CEO.

"That's our focus -- wind only [policies]," he said. "It a market segment that has been underserved."

Weston Insurance plans to offer basically the same rates as Citizens to homeowners who are used to thinking they can't afford a private insurer, Lyons said.

"Weston writes risks at the same rates as Citizens," Lyons wrote in an email.

Regardless of which company sends a "take-out" letter, homeowners should carefully review the offering, said Vinson of Policyholders of Florida.

"They need to compare coverage to price," Vinson said.

Homeowners should consult with their insurance agent or attorney, she said.

In Broward, Debbie Colangelo said she declined a take-out offer by an insurance company in an earlier round "based on the carrier's poor reputation and lack of longevity in the Florida insurance market."

"I will always be reluctant to be taken out by a carrier that has little or no experience weathering (no pun intended) a hurricane," she said in an email.

Still, some private companies offer better service and coverage than Citizens does, said Katherine Turk, vice president/private client manager of Boca Raton'sCentury Risk Advisors, an independent insurance and risk management agency.

dgehrke@tribune.com or Twitter @donnagehrke

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(c)2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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