By Julie Patel February 22, 2011 03:20 PM
A broad property insurance bill allowing certain rate hikes and eliminating a requirement that insurers offer full sinkhole coverage cleared its first legislative committee Tuesday after three meetings and intense debate.
Legislators and insurers that support the bill, SB 408, say it will reduce skyrocketing costs for frivolous sinkhole claims, including some for damage that is never actually repaired . But opponents, including some bankers and consumers, say the bill would hurt people with legitimate claims and require homeowners with mortgages to buy pricey force-placed coverage.
Much of the debate at the Senate’s banking and insurance committee meeting Tuesday centered on a provision to allow insurers to deny coverage for any sinkhole-activity other than that in which the property actually falls into a visible hole. “I don’t think markets work best when government forces someone to unwillingly sell something,” said Mark Delegal, a State Farm Florida lobbyist.
“We’ve been monkeying around socializing insurance for the last number of years and it has done nothing but make things worse,” added Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said certain requirements and regulations are needed to protect people from the insurance industry’s incentive to collect as much in premiums and pay out as little in claims as possible. “Health insurance companies did not want to cover mammograms [until] it was mandated,” she said.
“This is a disaster in the waiting,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who proposed deleting the part allowing insurers to opt out of sinkhole coverage. Fasano’s idea was shot down.
Before voting, the Senate panel heard from several homeowners, including three with sinkhole damage. But for the third meeting in a row, it had to turn some away.
South Florida legislators that voted for the bill include Senators Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Those that voted against it include Sobel and Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami.
The bill would, among other things:
Allow insurers to decline offering sinkhole coverage. If the insurer’s initial assessment determines there isn’t a sinkhole but the policyholders still want testing, it would require them to pony up part of the $9,500 average cost of testing.
Bar policyholders from filing sinkhole claims after the first two years that the policyholder “knew or reasonably should have known about the sinkhole loss.”
Require a policyholder whose sinkhole claim is approved to enter into a contract for repairs by 90 days and make the repairs within a year after that.
Allow insurers to withhold a full payment for home insurance claims until policyholders enter into a contract and repairs are made, but the provision wouldn’t apply to homes that are completely destroyed.
Require homeowners to file or reopen hurricane claims within three years after a storm, as opposed to a deadline of five years or more.
Allow insurers to raise rates if they can show they’re losing money on discounts to policyholders who fortify their homes against hurricanes. And it would give companies free reign on what they spend for advertising and agent commissions – cost that are at times questioned by regulators.