Battle lines drawn in insurance war

Article Courtesy of The Tallahassee Democrat

By Paige St. John
Published October 28, 2007

Coastal residents across the nation have a share in Florida's ferocious property-insurance war, where regulators and the industry are going head-to-head over sky-high home premiums.

"Realize what's at stake here," says Gov. Charlie Crist. "I guarantee you, if we can take care of business here in Florida ... we'll change it across the country, and it'll be a wildfire."

That is exactly the nightmare worrying insurers.

As Florida demands insurers lower rates and harasses those that won't comply with political rhetoric, investigative subpoenas and straight-on competition, the nation's insurers are devoting increasing effort to quell the hostility.

"Florida's always been a big part of what insurers are concerned about," says Bob Hartwig, president of the industry's Insurance Information Institute, a group that both helps set industry strategy, and then delivers the message to policymakers and the press.

"Basically, the general view is that Florida's approach to handling catastrophic risk is not one viable in other states, and in the long run it's not viable in Florida."

In the past year, Hartwig and his economists have carried their message to Congress, and to legislatures in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, South Carolina, Maryland and Texas - attempting along the way to show the danger Florida has put itself in as it demands lower rates rather than curb coastal development.

"Nobody is aware that Florida's plan is not actuarially sound," Hartwig said.

'Need to get tough'

The interventionist mood has already spread.

New York, having slapped insurers for forcing residents to buy car insurance to keep their homes protected, now seeks to order insurers to bank their record profits for future hurricanes. Massachusetts and New Jersey are contemplating similar proposals.

Connecticut's attorney general accuses the nation's largest reinsurance brokerage of price-fixing, rigging the market to run up profits by forcing insurers to run up rates.

In Florida, Republican Crist remains on offense - publicizing subpoenas to hammer the nation's largest insurers, financial rating firms and the unregulated global underwriting market with allegations of conspiracy, collusion and greed.

His tactics have been called "jack-booted extortion" in an insurance executive's recent newspaper letter and "a campaign to socialize Florida's insurance market" in The Wall Street Journal editorials that Florida's Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said were "planted" by the insurance industry.

For Mike Buser - told he is being dropped by Allstate after two decades of claim-free coverage and spending $14,000 to hurricane-proof his coastal Florida home - it is not yet enough.

"Maybe its time these insurance commissioners, from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas . . . all got together, and said, if you want to do business in our states, here's how you're going to do it," said the Air Force retiree who now lives in Melbourne.

"I think they need to get tough."

Florida as 'tipping point'

For the 13 years between Hurricane Andrew and the eight storms of 2004-05, Florida did what most Gulf states are doing post-Katrina.

It made building codes tougher and set up a state-run coastal insurance pool to cover homes private companies deemed too risky. It allowed insurers to raise rates and it let them cut coverage.

"Florida has given what the insurance industry has asked for," said Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty.

None of that stopped the explosive rate increases and policy cancellations that pushed Florida's insurance crisis to the forefront of the state's 2006 elections. A month into office, Crist presided over a special session of the Legislature to begin Florida's insurance makeover. The state and its consumers took on the possibility of paying $28 billion in potential hurricane losses in exchange for the promise of lower rates.

Small, Florida-only insurers have complied with the required rollbacks, offering premiums half of what their national competitors charge.

But national insurers still seek to raise rates and cancel policies, saying they cannot survive otherwise.

The Florida response: tough talk at press conferences, televised antagonistic hearings and now, investigative subpoenas as Crist demands to know whether insurers are conspiring to keep insurance rates high.

On the eve of its own such hearing, State Farm's Florida subsidiary agreed to lower its rates 9 percent, though it still will drop tens of thousands of customers within two miles of the coast.

Florida regulators then took aim at the next-largest private insurer seeking an increase - demanding that Allstate turn over internal correspondence with national trade groups and rating organizations.

Such treatment will backfire, warn executives at USAA, their own request for a 58-percent increase recently rejected. The company is canceling all but the primary homes of active-duty military in Florida.

"There are such large markets that individual companies are reluctant to walk away from that much premium," said Bill McCartney, USAA's senior vice president for regulatory policy and himself the former insurance commissioner of Nebraska.

But, he said, "There is a tipping point. Florida is getting awfully close to it."

'The sky is falling'

It is a bluff, says Florida's insurance commissioner.

"Florida is such a huge market. ... Florida, California, Texas, New York, they're not going to walk away," McCarty said. "I think some smaller states are more easily intimidated. There is genuine fear."

Insurance-company threats can work, said Louisiana Sen. Julie Quinn.

The Metairie freshman - she took office three weeks before Hurricane Katrina - said insurers have made it clear they won't tolerate Florida-esque reforms, including her own effort to require coverage for storm surge.

"They convey to the Legislature all of the time the sky is falling, the sky is falling," the Louisiana Republican said. "Every single time, it is, if you do this, we will leave the state, and because insurance is so critical to the economy, legislators are very hesitant to take any drastic action.

"And, they are also a very powerful lobby."

Texas insurance regulators have had an equally difficult time forcing national insurers to comply with rate cuts ordered three years ago, let alone to curb coastal increases.

"State Farm and Allstate are still holding out, and digging their feet in," said Texas Insurance Public Counsel Rod Bordelon.

Like Florida officials, Bordelon sees insurers burying their record profits in reinsurance coverage treaties and other contractual relationships - some of them with sister companies - beyond reach of regulators.

"Whether its collusion in the industry," or not, Bordelon says, "it's difficult for regulators to get a handle on it."

The battle line has now swept past Florida and the Katrina states, encompassing the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Allstate, State Farm and Liberty Mutual have all announced rate increases and withdrawals from northern shores that have not seen a hurricane in nearly 70 years.

"We have had a mass exodus of the voluntary market," said Paula Aschettino, a Cape Cod artist whose own home premium has soared from $1,600 a year to $4,839. She's keenly aware of her own contribution to the industry's record $64 billion profit in 2006.

"The industry itself is shifting the risk from insurers to the citizens to the state and to the national government. In my opinion it allows the insurance industry to keep raking in the profit and minimizing their exposure to loss."

Tired of "crabbing in our coffee cups," Aschettino took a cue from the grassroots groups she encountered while visiting Florida, forming Citizens for Homeowners Insurance Reform.

She and her angry neighbors will protest Monday night in Boston outside a swank hotel where, inside, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America - representing more than 1,000 insurers - is holding its national conference.