Florida lawmakers delay action on insurance bill

Feb 8, 2011

The following article was published in the Bradenton Herald on February 8, 2011:

Lawmakers delay action on insurance bill

By Brent Kallestad


TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee delayed voting Monday on a proposed property insurance bill designed to crack down on fraudulent or excessive sinkhole claims.

Although a vote was scheduled on the measure (SB 408), Banking and Insurance Committee chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he wanted to hear more testimony and won a postponement.

The sinkhole issue is the most controversial component of a property insurance reform measure that lawmakers are trying to pass again this session. It would make it easier for insurers to refuse sinkhole coverage.

A similar bill, without the sinkhole provisions, passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Richter believes insurance companies have been tagged for millions of dollars in questionable, if not fraudulent, claims where policyholders extract settlements for something as minor as a crack in the driveway or didn’t use settlement money to repair damages.

Since the last major hurricane, Wilma, hit Florida in 2005, sinkhole claims have skyrocketed, approaching nearly $2 billion in the last four years. Most of the claims have come from Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

The committee knocked down a series of amendments offered Monday by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Fasano, who represents a district that includes two of the three counties in Florida hit hardest by sinkhole claims, fears that insurers would refuse to provide sinkhole coverage if SB 408 is adopted in its present form.

However, the panel approved another business-backed proposal (SB 178) sponsored by Sen. Steve Oelrich that expands upon a bill passed last year to includes small businesses when insurers pass along rate increases before receiving approval from the Office of Insurance Regulation.

“Businesses of all size think that this is a plus,” said Oelrich, R-Alachua. “Getting back to the free market (and) less government regulation on business.”

The assessment, however, would still be reviewed by OIR to ensure that it’s not excessive.

Finding a workable agreement on property insurance has been a problem for lawmakers since Hurricane Andrew slammed South Florida nearly 20 years ago. And the challenge only became more elusive after eight big storms belted the state in the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

And now, sinkholes.