Florida wants federal help for insurance crisis

John O'Brien Jul. 18, 2007, 1:53pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The federal flood insurance program has been the subject of much debate and litigation in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and the higher-ups in Florida think the answer to another possible insurance mess is another federal program.

Gov. Charlie Crist recently introduced a Cabinet Resolution, sponsored by Attorney General Bill McCollum, to Congress with the hope of creating a National Catastrophe Insurance Program.

"Only by the creation of such a program can the risk of catastrophic events like hurricanes and earthquakes be spread outside a single state, and only by the creation of such a national program can we expect to see homeowners' windstorm insurance premiums in Florida significantly reduced in the future," McCollum said Tuesday.

Some feel a busy hurricane season might expose Crist and McCollum for mishandling an insurance crisis in Florida. McCollum has said he has been advising Crist on the matter.

Crist and the state Legislature successfully passed measures earlier this year that prevented insurance companies from dropping policyholders until after this year's hurricane season. The state-run Citizens Property Insurance, once the insurer of last resort and now the largest in the state, has a $432 billion exposure to risk, according to a report by The Associated Press.

McCollum told LegalNewsline in March that a long-term solution is needed for the issue of reinsurance to cover catastrophic events -- once-in-a-generation hurricanes. That timetable, though, has been a problem. Insurers in Florida want to base their premiums on weather patterns of the previous five years (which include the hectic seasons of 2004-05), while the state government feels they should be based on the last 100 years.

Private insurers may draw from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund -- reinsurance provided by taxpayers, though McCollum said Tuesday that the fund currently has only $5 billion to pay claims despite the fact it insures up to $28 billion.

Insurance attorney David Rossmiller, a partner at Dunn Carney in Portland, Ore., who has been analyzing the Gulf Coast's insurance situation for Legal Newsline, said the benefits of a national catastrophe fund will not be felt by much of the country.

"People in places without a lot of natural catastrophes, like Montana or Colorado, won't think so highly of creating a national program that subsidizes people in Florida," said Rossmiller, whose blog can be found here.

"What is frequently brought up is that we are paying a great deal of subsidies right now in the form of federal disaster relief. That's true, but that doesn't mean you should create another institution that subsidizes people to live in disaster-prone areas.

"Just look at Florida -- they have a state-run insurer that has taken on way more risk than it safely should, and lawmakers won't let it raise rates to cover the risk."

McCollum believes that if the federal government becomes the reinsurer of last resort for very large hurricanes and earthquakes, more reinsurance will be available at lower premiums. Homeowners insurance then could be offered at lower premiums to Florida residents.

"The federal government already extends billions of dollars in taxpayer-supported assistance to victims of national disasters," McCollum said. "By creating a National Catastrophic Insurance Program, it will assure that more property losses from windstorm or earthquakes or other national disasters are covered by private insurance, thereby reducing taxpayer costs."

Rossmiller said others in Florida are starting to question the actions taken by Crist, who often blamed private insurance companies for raising their premiums.

"Florida (Chief Financial Officer)Alex Sink recently said in an interview with the Miami Herald that she is starting to realize that these so-called insurance reforms in Florida -- increased regulations on insurers -- aren't having the effect people promised of lowering premiums," Rossmiller said.

"I wonder what the market place is trying to tell Florida? Maybe that it has overbuilt in some very risky areas, and that the cost of insuring them is high, even if you try gimmicks like price freezes and selling reinsurance and hiring Don Rickles as your governor to insult insurance companies."

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