News from Tallahassee for 9/30/14

Citizens Insurance approves early end to Hurricane Wilma assessment posted on 9/25/14

by JIM Turner | NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE

A Citizens Property Insurance Corp. surcharge imposed on most Florida homeowners’ policies because of damages from the last of the 2005 hurricanes will end two years earlier than planned.

The state-owned insurer’s Board of Governors unanimously voted Wednesday to end the 1 percent charge on July 1, 2015. The storm assessment, on the books since 2007, was previously scheduled to continue until June 30, 2017.

In recommending the change, Citizens Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Montero told the board the balance of the remaining debt on the bonds issued for the 2005 storm is expected to be paid off next year.

Citizens imposed the storm assessment in 2007 on insurance policyholders throughout the state — whether they were Citizens customers or not — to recoup $887 million of the roughly $1.7 billion deficit created by Hurricane Wilma, which hit South Florida on Oct. 24, 2005. The state picked up $623 million of the costs from Wilma, while the rest was covered by additional assessments on Citizens policyholders.

Citizens has been working to reduce the number of policies it carries. Chief Risk Officer John Rollins said assessments should be an incentive for homeowners to seek private coverage rather than going with the state-run carrier.

The storm assessment, initially set at 1.4 percent and reduced to 1 percent in 2011, is imposed on a variety of property-insurance policies.

The announcement of the early end to what critics have labeled a storm “tax” comes two months after the Office of Insurance Regulation issued orders for insurance companies to end on Jan. 1 a 1.3 percent “emergency assessment” for the state-run Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which provides backup coverage to insurers.

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Inspector General: former Citizens executives did not violate ethics rules posted on 9/12/14

by News Service of Florida

The Citizens Property Insurance Corp. inspector general found no improprieties in how three former executives left for employment with private firms that have ties to the state-backed insurer.

However, Inspector General Bruce Meeks’ findings note the state code of ethics applies to fewer managers at Citizens than at other state agencies. And Meeks recommended the insurer should consider clarifying parts of its ethics code, expand post-employment restrictions at the management level and include post-employment rules as part of ethics training for leadership.

“Post-employment restrictions are equally stringent and, in fact, are one and the same for Citizens senior managers and others subject to the state ethics code,” Meeks wrote in his report dated Aug. 31 and released Thursday. “The significant difference is that only Citizens senior managers are subject to the restrictions while a far larger number of public employees are subject to the post-employment restrictions in the state ethics code.”

Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway said in a release he will review the recommendations. If changes are needed, Gilway will present them to the agency’s Board of Governors in December.

“The bottom line is that we expect all our employees, especially our senior executives, to uphold the highest ethical standards and I’m pleased that the inspector general’s report concludes we are doing just that,” Gilway said.

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427,584 of Citizens' policies to be in latest take-out round posted on 9/5/14

by Donna Gehrke-White | Sun Sentinel

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has received approval to shift almost half of its policies to fourteen private insurers, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation announced Thursday.

The office approved the removal of up to 427,584 residential policies from the state-run insurer, including 2,227 policies for rental units, condominiums and homeowners associations, spokesman Harvey Bennett said.

Property owners can opt out of the switch, but they must send in a form, which will be included in the letters from the 14 state-approved insurance companies. Last month, Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Steve Burgess voiced his concern that some homeowners might not open a letter announcing a proposed policy transfer.

The latest move accounts for nearly 46 percent of Citizens' policies and represents the largest single reduction since 2011, said Office of Insurance Regulation spokesman Bennett.

But not all of the policies will leave the public insurer, Citizens' spokesman Michael Peltier predicted.

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Crist blasts Scott for catering to insurer ‘greed’ posted on 9/5/14

by charles elmore | Palm beach Post

Gov. Rick Scott is “catering to the greed” of property insurance companies whose donations he takes, opponent Charlie Crist said Thursday, promising to work to roll back rates and rules he calls friendly to the industry if elected.

Crist, a former GOP governor turned Democratic candidate, said property insurance rates went down 10 percent in his tenure but climbed 14 percent under Scott to the nation’s highest.

It is an issue that “really gets to the choice facing voters in this election,” Crist said. “It’s about protecting your paycheck.”

Scott campaign spokesman Matt Moon fired back in a statement.

“Charlie Crist has already tried the Obama playbook of bigger government and skyrocketing debt to deal with property insurance rates,” Moon said. “Unsurprisingly, Florida taxpayers were left on the hook for billions and homeowners were left with fewer options to protect their property. Under Gov. Scott, Florida has done the exact opposite, reforming and shrinking Citizens Insurance while giving consumers more choice and competition to protect their home.”

If elected, Crist said, he would use a “bully pulpit” to urge a GOP-controlled legislature to repeal legislation such as that limiting coverage to customers of state-run insurer Citizens, require transparency for insurer data and increase back-up coverage from the state’s hurricane fund.

Crist’s critics say his previous policies artificially lowered rates and ran off private insurers like State Farm.

State Farm was the loudest voice talking about leaving Florida but “they’re still here,” Crist said. “It’s such a big market. They want to make money.”

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Florida HCA hospital charged exorbitant fees for scans, X-rays, lawsuit claims posted on 9/4/14

by Keith Morelli | Tampa Bay Tribune

TAMPA — A pair of unrelated car wrecks in South Florida last year has resulted in what may be a far-reaching lawsuit filed in Tampa. The suit accuses a holding company that owns 80 hospitals across the state, including several in the Tampa area, of grossly overcharging for medical services.

According to the suit, JFK Medical Center and its owner, HCA Holdings, charged exorbitant fees for emergency room radiological services. The overcharges sapped the Personal Injury Protection coverage limits of the patients and left them with thousands of dollars of uncovered bills they had to pay out of their pockets, the suit says.

The four-count, 38-page lawsuit was filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court and seeks class-action certification.

Theodore J. Leopold, a lawyer with the Palm Beach Gardens-based law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll that filed the lawsuit, said HCA hospitals gouged patients with PIP coverage and the insurance companies that offer it.

“We estimate overcharges or up-charges can be from 400 to 700 percent,” he said. “And the patient has no money left over for the rest of their care.”

HCA’s local list of hospitals include Brandon Regional Hospital, Memorial Hospital and Town & Country Hospital, St. Petersburg General Hospital and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.

The lawsuit does not mention any medical facility except the JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, a few miles south of West Palm Beach. Attorneys filing the action say their clients, two women who were in unrelated traffic accidents in April and May 2013, were victims of “unreasonable, unconscionable and unlawful pricing and billing practices.”

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