Column: We have a car wreck of a crisis

Nov 27, 2011

The following article was published in the Ocala Star-Banner on November 27, 2011:

We have a car wreck of a crisis

Much is made of Florida’s property insurance crisis, and with good reason. Rates are high. The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, or CAT Fund, which is intended to help cover property losses in case of a major hurricane, is almost $4 billion underfunded.

And if we are slammed with a big ’cane, or two, or three, or four, as we were in 2004 and ’05, every Floridian holding an auto or property insurance policy will be hammered with hundreds, maybe thousands in additional fees to cover the losses. It is, indeed, a crisis that those in power are willing to fix for fear of the public’s wrath.

But what we don’t hear about is Florida’s other insurance crisis. Its automobile insurance crisis.

Rates are high. Insurers threaten to bolt Florida every time Florida’s insurance commissioner balks at rate hike requests. Between 30 and 40 percent of the state’s drivers have no insurance at all. And now we are told accident claim fraud is rampant — lo, we’re No. 1 in the nation in another dubious category.

So I was heartened when I saw a headline in the paper the other day that read, “Legislature to look at revamping state’s no-fault insurance program.” Then came the subhead: “It will pit governor, insurance companies and top lawmakers against an equally powerful coalition” — a coalition of doctors, lawyers and health clinic owners who make money off car accident injuries.

It turns out that Floridians pay about $50 a year apiece for PIP, or personal injury protection, that guarantees a person hurt in an accident will be able to get up to $10,000 in immediate medical care if they are involved in an accident. The problem is apparently a lot of unsavory types have figured out how to scam the system by hooking up with crooked doctors and lawyers, and faking injuries to collect the $10,000. One guy in Tampa was busted and authorities found $4 million in cash stashed in his attic from running such scams.

Gov. Rick Scott argues that Floridians pay $900 million in PIP rate fees, and that amount is about to go up by 60-some percent if something isn’t done.

So do something. We all know how insurance works. The whole of us pay into a common fund so we as individuals can collect when we have an accident. Most observers say if there were just more investigators and more prosecution, the problem would be brought into check.

But what has not been mentioned between worrying about the governor, the legislators, the insurance companies, the doctors, the lawyers and the clinic operators is how can we get auto insurance rates to where one-third of all drivers aren’t cruising around uninsured.

An auto insurance salesperson called me the other day to ask if she could give me a rate quote. I told her I had a teenage son, a daughter in college, a schoolteacher wife and myself. We all have older used cars. No accidents. No tickets. She asked if I wanted uninsured motorist coverage. I did. She tabulated things up and told me she could insure my family for $4,200 … every six months.

Is it any wonder a third of Florida’s driving public are tooling around breaking the law with no auto insurance? If lawmakers want to tackle an insurance crisis, try auto insurance costs. We’d all be safer and sounder.

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