Voters fed up with insurers

Jul 21, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--July 20, 2008

By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE — At a time when Floridians have their pick of pocketbook concerns, from record gasoline prices to lack of health care, one issue remains a high priority: property insurance.

Complaints of high premiums, policy cancellations and long delays in resolving claims surface regularly in the mailbox of Gov. Charlie Crist, who gets up to 900 letters every week from constituents on a variety of issues.

The issue hits so close to home that Crist just received a letter from the owner of a condominium on the 22nd floor of Bayfront Tower, the downtown St. Petersburg high-rise where Crist is a renter.

It’s further evidence that high anxiety over the cost and availability of insurance is expected to be a hot-button issue in races for the Legislature all over the Tampa Bay area this summer and fall, as it was two years ago.

And in what could be an ominous sign for incumbents, a recent statewide poll by the Property Casualty Insurers Association found that 75 percent of voters said legislators failed to deliver on lower rates.

"Any elected official who lives in an area where property insurance premiums have risen with little or no relief is at risk. There’s no question," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who is up for re-election this fall. Fasano stopped short of putting himself in that category, and claimed to have a long record as a vocal critic of the industry.

But a Democratic opponent, Fred Taylor, has sent a letter to voters in Senate District 11 saying Fasano has raised more than $130,000 in campaign contributions from the insurance industry.

Bracing for the campaign ahead, Fasano said that he has an audiotape of a leading Democratic state senator, Al Lawson, defending the insurance industry, and that he plans to play the tape at a candidates’ forum to demonstrate that it’s not a partisan issue.

Still vivid in the minds of bay area candidates are the devastating TV ads used in 2006 to portray Republican Senate candidate Kim Berfield as a captive of the insurance industry. The ads showed Berfield’s smiling face in the pocket of a businessman’s suit coat. She lost to Democrat Charlie Justice.

Candidates are on edge, wondering who will be vilified as the 2008 version of Berfield.

It won’t be hard to find voters receptive to the message, based on Crist’s mailbag.

An elderly Boynton Beach woman, Thelma Marinoff, recently wrote Crist to tell him her insurance premium has risen from $2,135 to $3,006 in one year. Joyce Kenady of Largo sent Crist her cancellation notice from State Farm, even though she said she has not filed a single claim in 33 years. "This stinks!" Kenady wrote in the margin.

Terry Miller of Fort Lauderdale sent Crist a copy of her cancellation notice from Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer. Curtis Matthews of Port St. Lucie told Crist he’s still waiting for Allstate to settle claims from roof damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Richard Pearson of Spring Hill told Crist he can’t get a policy to cover the value of his mobile home, with a fair market value of $61,000. "I am requesting that you keep your campaign promise and fix this insurance mess," Pearson wrote to Crist last week.

Also among the recent letters is one from condo owner James DeHaven, whose unit is on the same floor as Crist’s rental in Bayfront Tower. DeHaven wrote to complain that three weeks after contacting Citizens about water damage to his hardwood floors, a claims agent was not returning his calls.

Forced to cut short his summer trip and drive home from Colorado, DeHaven wrote to Crist: "These properties have been severely impacted by property taxes and increased insurance rates, but now to find out that the insurance (at least with Citizens) is no good either!"

DeHaven asked Crist and other state officials to investigate Citizens’ response to claims.

A spokesman for Citizens, John Kuczwanski, said confidentiality laws prohibited him from discussing DeHaven’s case, but a review found no inordinate delays. "We are well within the normal time frame for working through a claim," he said.

Last week, as Crist was on an 11-day European trade mission, his office released a letter to the state insurance commissioner after State Farm filed a request for a 47 percent rate increase.

"It is critical that we continue to put the best interests of our citizens forward," Crist wrote.