Public vents anger online against Citizens

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

Published  December 2, 2006


Several hundred Citizens Property Insurance Corp. policyholders are using a new Web site to slam the insurer, complaining about high rates, the lack of a payment plan and poor customer service.

Many of the more than 300 entries on the state-sponsored site also contain desperate pleas from policyholders worried about losing their homes and being forced out of Florida because of increasing rates at the state's insurer of last resort.

"We can't even sell our house to move out of Florida,'' wrote one mobile home owner, adding that their premium from Citizens for a less than 1,500-square-foot mobile home was $2,627. "We are going to go bankrupt! We need help now!"

The Web site,, was launched Tuesday by the State Office of Insurance Regulation to solicit opinions from policyholders. Although the comments are not available online, Citizens, the state-sponsored insurer, provided them to a reporter upon request.

The insurer surpassed State Farm in July to become Florida's largest homeowners provider. It has picked up policies as other insurers have failed, withdrawn or scaled back in the state. It now has 1.3 million policyholders.

The comments, along with those of Citizens policyholders attending public hearings, are supposed to be incorporated by Citizens officials into a new plan of operation by the end of January. One of the hearings was held in Key West on Nov. 27 while the others have not yet been scheduled. Insurance officials expect the other hearings to be held in St. Petersburg and Pensacola. A fourth hearing may be held in Broward County, said OIR spokesman Bob Lotane.

Attorney General Charlie Crist, now Florida's governor-elect, set into motion the review of Citizens operations in September. Crist, joined by Gov. Jeb Bush and other Cabinet members, rejected Citizens plan of operation at a meeting of the Florida Cabinet, saying it failed to address concerns about customer service.

Citizens is taking all the comments seriously, according to spokesman Rocky Scott. However, he added, complaints may be misleading since customers generally only comment if there is a problem. Only a few of the items posted on the Web site praised Citizens.

After the 2004 hurricanes resulted in 9,000 complaints from storm victims upset with Citizens service, the insurer beefed up service. Scott said complaints dropped to 1,200 after the 2005 storms.

Indeed, policyholders don't appear to be complaining about claim-handling in their comments on the Web site. Primary objections are about Citizens customer service, including personnel unable to answer policy questions, in addition to a general difficulty in being able to reach a representative. Several policyholders complained Citizens does not print a contact number on its bills.

But it is complaints about Citizens rates, which have doubled and tripled over the last several years, that make up the bulk of comments on the Web site.

Citizens Chairman Bruce Douglas recently called for lawmakers to repeal part of a state law they passed earlier this year that increases Citizens rates next March.

That increase would follow an already approved increase scheduled for next month. In coastal Palm Beach County, the impact of the combined increases would push Citizens rates up by more than 100 percent.

Citizens incurred deficits of more than $2 billion from the 2004 and 2005 storms, requiring a bailout from every homeowner insurance policyholder in Florida. Surcharges are being spread out over the next decade.

Another area of concern expressed by policyholders on the Citizens Web site is the lack of a premium payment plan. Lawmakers last spring required Citizens to implement a payment plan by July 1.

Citizens is working to set up such a system. Scott said the task of creating a program from scratch is complicated by the fact that Citizens is adding thousands of new policyholders weekly.

Citizens has not yet chosen a vendor to implement a new payment plan and Scott said he couldn't say whether the company could meet the July 1 deadline. ''We're aware of the problem,'' he said. "We know that not everyone is made of money.''