Johnson: State needs more public input in premium hikes, not less

Article Courtesy of The News-Journal

Published  July 19, 2006

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida regulators aren't getting enough input from the public before approving property insurance rate increases, state chief financial officer candidate Randy Johnson said Tuesday.

Johnson, a Republican state representative from Celebration, has made the high cost and difficulty in getting property insurance the backbone of his campaign for the Cabinet post. He suggested Tuesday during a stop in the capital to file his qualifying papers that if he were elected to the Cabinet he would work to block any insurance rate increases until more public input is sought from customers.

The state Office of Insurance Regulation, which answers to the Cabinet, recently said it would hold fewer public hearings around the state, and instead hold more evidentiary hearings in Tallahassee.

The agency has said that high-profile rate requests will still be the subject of hearings outside the capital, but that in general it's better for consumers if the state's insurance consumer advocate and his staff can more easily attend the hearings to challenge companies' assertions about the need for premium increases.

But Johnson said proposed increases in insurance rates are the biggest economic issue facing Florida families and they should be guaranteed a say when a company wants to raise them.

Johnson said that by holding fewer public hearings outside the capital, insurance regulators were giving Florida residents "the sense that nobody is listening and nobody cares."

Johnson said he would favor a freeze in rate increases "until the Office of Insurance Regulation has honored the law which says you get public input."

"We'll end up with a better product if we ... go engage people and listen to them," Johnson said.

OIR spokesman Bob Lotane said the primary reason for holding more hearings in Tallahassee was to better be able to evaluate companies requests by making better use of the experts in the office.

"We can really get a lot more out of the hearings if we can have them here, have all the staff here," Lotane said. "We believe they'll be better."

But Lotane also acknowledged that holding meetings around the state hasn't been very useful because they are typically poorly attended.

"At about half of them, nobody showed up," Lotane said.

Johnson argues that's because the state doesn't publicize them.

"Advertising in some trade weekly and expecting working families to show up is unreasonable," Johnson said.

The state is required to publish notice of public meetings in the Florida Administrative Weekly, but that isn't widely read. In some cases, it also buys advertising, but Lotane said the budget for that wasn't very high.

High-profile rate cases involving the largest companies will still include public hearings around the state, Lotane said. For example, there will be hearings in a pending case involving Nationwide Insurance. He said consumers also will always have the ability to register their opinions with OIR by mail or e-mail.

Senate President Tom Lee, Johnson's opponent in the Republican primary for the CFO seat, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.