Insurance crisis fixed? Check your mailbox

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Tom Zucco
Published  March 8, 2007

Andrea Weiler opened the letter Tuesday morning and discovered what about 25,000 other Nationwide Florida policyholders are learning this week.

A new meaning of the term spring break.

As property insurance companies rush to meet the state's March 15 deadline to lower premiums, they're also poised to do something the state wouldn't allow them to do until now: drop policyholders.

Once a company files its proposal to cut rates with the state, the state-ordered moratorium on cancellations is lifted. And policies can be dropped.

Enter Nationwide, which filed its rate proposal Friday. About 25,000 cancellation notices started hitting mailboxes Monday and Tuesday.

After she learned her policy would not be renewed when it expires in August - near the height of the hurricane season - Weiler said she called her Nationwide agent. She was told she was one of about 400 policyholders from that office who were being dropped.

Nationwide officials wouldn't confirm that number, but did acknowledge that the company has embarked on a sizable cutback, mostly in coastal counties like Pinellas and Pasco.

The fourth-largest property insurer in Florida with about 200,000 policies statewide and about 40,000 in the Tampa Bay area, Nationwide announced in August 2005 it was not writing new business in the state.

The company also said that, starting in 2006, it would drop 35,000 homeowner, 4,800 mobile home and 12,000 commercial policies statewide as they come up for renewal.

"And that has not changed," Nationwide spokesman Joe Cash said Wednesday. "With last week's rate filing, we are resuming the implementation of that strategy."

Although Nationwide's filing Friday was rejected by regulators three days later, "we feel that filing complies with the law" and allows it to resume dropping policyholders immediately, Case said. "We look forward to discussing it" with the regulators.

The 25,000 dropped policies, Cash said, are spread out over the next year and are coming in a large block to give policyholders more time to find another company.

"We're never happy about non-renewals," said Bob Lotane, a spokesman for the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. "But many of the Nationwide non-renewals do go far beyond the minimum 100-day notice, which gives more time for policyholders to find other options."

Nationwide isn't alone. State Farm Florida announced last fall it would not renew the wind portion of about 40,000 policies. But a company spokesman said those cancellations are on hold for now.

For some Nationwide policyholders, cancellation may not be such a bad thing. In July, Nationwide requested, and was denied, a 71 percent rate increase.

But the request wasn't withdrawn and is instead headed for a three-member arbitration panel next week. The panel can overrule regulators and implement the increase, and in the majority of previous cases, it did.

In addition, state-backed Citizens Property Insurance, which is likely where many Nationwide policyholders are headed, is now allowed to directly compete with private companies at rates that were set at 2005 levels.

Still, that's of little consolation to the thousands who got letters this week.

"I don't feel like there's been a solution to the insurance crisis," said Weiler, who lives in Palm Harbor. "Really, what has changed?"

Bill Brinds, a retired tax agent, also found out Tuesday that Nationwide will drop the policy on his Seminole home when it expires in December.

"Didn't really surprise me," Brinds said. "I had read that companies were not renewing policies.

"But in 13 years, I had never had a claim and never missed a payment. I thought they'd take that into consideration.

"Apparently it doesn't work that way."

Tom Zucco can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8247.

More to come?

Nationwide is the first major property insurer in Florida to start dropping policies as a state moratorium on cancellations phases out. All insurers are required to make amended rate filings by March 15 before they are allowed to drop policies.