E. GARCIA AND MARC CAPUTO
Seven months after Florida lawmakers expanded the government's role in the state's insurance market, rates should be lower and insurers should be willing to write more policies.
Just the opposite is happening. What went wrong?
Legislators themselves are stumped but are acknowledging they should never have pledged such big savings to homeowners. They say reforms need more time to work. But some wonder whether government should take even a bigger role in the insurance market -- possibly taking over all windstorm coverage, for example.
Sen. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican involved in negotiating the massive insurance reform, said lawmakers could move only so far so fast and that the ''culture of instant gratification'' made it difficult to meet expectations in the first place.
''You can't turn the Queen Mary around on a dime,'' Posey said. "This is a big ship and it will take time.''
One emerging explanation for the higher rates is that new rules, expanding a state catastrophe fund to help insurers cover losses if a massive storm hits, may have backfired.
The expansion of the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund was the centerpiece of the reform plan to lower rates for Florida homeowners because it would allow insurers to buy cheaper backup insurance and pass the savings on to policyholders. The CAT Fund now can cover $28 billion in losses.
The big assumption was that insurers would buy more of their reinsurance from the CAT Fund.
Some have done just that. But instead of passing along the savings, they are buying additional ''reinsurance'' in the private market. The stated reason: They fear the CAT Fund won't have enough money to pay their claims. Besides covering private insurers, the CAT Fund also backs up the state-run Citizens Property Insurance, the state's largest insurer, with 1.3 million policies and growing.
In denying Florida Farm Bureau's request for a rate hike on Friday, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty noted the company's ''business decision'' to spend $6 million on more reinsurance "rather than passing the savings on to their policyholders.''
The company, which plans to challenge the denial, told regulators it needed the additional backup coverage to protect against the possibility of a major storm this season.
Steve Geller, the Democrats' Senate leader from Cooper City, was the mastermind behind the reinsurance fix and said Friday it would work only as long as insurers followed through on passing along their savings.
''I'm very disappointed with what's happening,'' Geller said.
James Massie, lobbyist for the Reinsurance Association of America, said that if the state had not interfered, homeowners' premiums would in fact be lower. That's because, as it turns out, the price of private reinsurance has dropped as much as 20 percent from last July.
''If the state had done nothing this year, they would have seen the 10 percent reduction in homeowners insurance,'' Massie said.
This much is clear: Gov. Charlie Crist's January pledge that ''help is on the way'' has yet to materialize for thousands of people, few are seeing the average 24 percent rate reduction that state legislators touted, and politicians from both parties are looking for new ways to meet the expectations they raised.
Already, nearly two dozen companies have filed for rate hikes, ranging as high as 95 percent.
Rep. Jack Seiler, a Wilton Manors Democrat, said that in finalizing the reform bill, lawmakers relied on industry-supplied data they were unable to double-check given the time constraints of the 10-day January special session.
Given that, Seiler says, promising big savings to homeowners was a mistake. Still, he said, the reforms should work, but they need time.
Crist couldn't be reached. A spokeswoman pointed out the governor has repeatedly said the insurance plan in January was a big first step, and more changes are needed.
Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, said she has asked Insurance Commissioner McCarty to come to the next Cabinet meeting in two weeks to explain why insurers aren't filing for lower rates. ''It's very disturbing. But we don't have the facts and figures to say it was a mistake yet,'' Sink said.
A bigger problem, some legislators say, is the effect of the plan's freezing rates for Citizens until 2009.
If Citizens doesn't collect enough premiums to cover its losses, insurers have to pay out the money up front and then make it back from policyholders over time.
Insurers also fear they can't compete with Citizens' lower rates. Before January, Citizens was required by law to charge some of the highest rates in the state.
Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who cast one of the two votes in the 160-member Legislature against the plan, believes the state's plan was doomed from the start because the state can't tap banks or other sources of capital -- as private insurers can -- to replenish the CAT Fund if it runs dry. It has to assess Florida taxpayers.
Those assessments could be tacked onto all policies -- auto, homeowners, commercial -- for as long as 30 years.
Insurance agents such as Alex Soto, president of InSource, a Dadeland agency, also are worried about the additional risk the CAT Fund is taking on.
The bill passed in January ''said insurers have to pay claims in 90 days. Then we create a hurricane fund that could be underfunded. You have to be careful what you wish for,'' he added.
To allay concerns about the CAT Fund's ability to pay claims quickly, officials approved plans this week to borrow $3 billion to $7 billion.
Those funds would be stashed in the bank, along with the $5.2 billion the CAT Fund expects to have by year's end from premiums collected from insurance companies and money borrowed last year. All would be available to cover claims.
While some lawmakers like Ross believe the state has no business being in the insurance business, others are considering moving in the opposite direction.
A proposal floating through Tallahassee would make Florida the windstorm insurer for the entire state. Bob Milligan, the state's insurance consumer advocate, has been studying this.
Said Sink: "I have been open-minded about it. But I want to see more analysis. The very idea is pretty frightening to me.''