Don't let insurance lobby gut consumer protections

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  March 31, 2007

Tallahassee lawmakers are back to their old tricks of giving with one hand and taking with the other. Some of those consumer-friendly property insurance reforms approved during a special session in January are now being rewritten at the behest of the powerful insurance lobby. Enough legislators from both political parties raised concerns this week to block final approval of the bill in the House, and they should not give in to the arm-twisting by the Republican leadership.

The so-called "glitch" bill is supposed to clean up the technical errors made by the rush of the one-week special session. But what constitutes an error is in the eye of the beholder. Not surprisingly, the insurance lobby and consumer advocates see things quite differently.

One of the more important consumer protections created during the special session is a 90-day deadline for insurers to act on damage claims. Horror stories of inexcusable delays abounded following the busy hurricane season of 2004. Some homeowners waited six months or more for their claims to be settled.

Under the new law, either a payment or a denial has to be received within three months or the policyholder has grounds to sue. The only exception is if there was something outside the insurer's control.

House Bill 7077 would strip away some of these newly created rights. Failure to pay or deny the claim within the time limits would no longer be specific grounds for a lawsuit, leaving homeowners to try to assert their rights through state regulators or under more nebulous legal claims.

In addition, the bill would exempt commercial property and master policies for condominium developments from the time limits. The insurance industry says that complex multimillion dollar claims take longer than 90 days to resolve.

On Thursday, a final vote on the bill was postponed when it became clear that some Republican lawmakers would join a bloc of Democrats in opposition. Gov. Charlie Crist has correctly questioned the bill, saying that "there are parts of it that concern me."

The state's responsible leaders know that Florida's economic health following a major natural disaster depends on insurers quickly coming through for both homeowners and businesses. There is no reason to change the law before it has had a chance to work. Legislators stood up to the insurance industry in January, and they should not start backing down now.