Citizens: New oversight OK, let’s shrink smarter

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Charles Elmore

Published January 31, 2013

After “stepping on almost every land mine we possibly could,” as one official put it, state-run insurer Citizens enters 2013 adding waste-hunting accountants, embracing the idea of an internal inspector general and looking for smarter ways to shrink.

“We need to do everything possible to build confidence in the public,” board chairman Carlos Lacasa told The Palm Beach Post’s editorial board Tuesday.

One idea to get smaller: A clearinghouse aimed at doing a better job of making sure potential customers never reach Citizens in the first place if there are suitable private carriers to serve them.

That’s a concept pushed by Citizens president Barry Gilway. The idea is to run customers through a clearinghouse connected to scores of private insurers that might offer coverage before they land with Citizens, the state’s biggest carrier with 1.3 million customers.

More than half its new customers come to Citizens from “captive” agents, who may be tied to a large insurer that isn’t writing new business and may have few options to offer besides Citizens, he said. Agents for State Farm, Allstate and others may have an interest in trying to keep longtime customers who perhaps have auto insurance and other business through them.

“If you go to a State Farm agent, you do not get consumer choice,” Gilway said. “That business is not shopped in the marketplace.”

State Farm spokeswoman Michal Brower said, “We continue to evaluate the clearinghouse concept that has been introduced.”

She noted “the relationship between our customers and their State Farm agent is very valuable and beneficial, and it is important for State Farm agents to have the opportunity to serve our customers’ homeowner needs in Florida’s difficult marketplace.”

Meanwhile, Citizens has added two forensic accountants to help spot fraud and abuse, partial steps in a plan to replace four fired members of the corporate integrity unit, Gilway said. Citizens has come under fire for its handling of that situation, which came amid criticism of executive travel expenses and alleged misconduct by employees. Christine Ashburn, the company’s director of legislative and external affairs, compared some recent challenges to negotiating a minefield.

A bill by state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, would make it possible for Citizens to add its own inspector general.

Describing himself as “well aware of the missteps,” Gilway said he is “more than open” to having an inspector general within Citizens, though he hopes it is not at the expense of other oversight moves the company wants to make.

“I’m fully supportive of the basic concept,” Gilway said.

Citizens has seen about 277,000 customers move to other carriers in 2012, and hopes to keep that momentum going, he said. The company’s customer count in Palm Beach County has dropped from 141,000 customers to about 131,000.

But in the past, many customers wind up coming back to Citizens if new insurers drop them or raise rates. This year, the company hopes to keep out more customers by helping see they never arrive in the first place.