State: Keep the sinkhole policy

A flier for home buyers from a state agency calls

sinkholes a "part of the Florida landscape."

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  April 8, 2007

In January, state Sen. Mike Fasano and Rep. John Legg ballyhooed the option of dropping sinkhole insurance as a way to "protect our consumers" and drop premiums as much as 60 percent.

There's something else consumers should know:

"Sinkholes are an unpredictable part of the Florida landscape, especially in West Central Florida and the greater Tampa Bay area," according to a flier for home buyers from the state Department of Financial Services.

Over a drawing of a crack across a brick wall, the flier gives another nugget of advice:

"Make sure that sinkhole coverage is included in your policy, or in a rider."

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. intends to make the option available by Sept. 1, if regulators approve the state-run insurer's final filings. Private insurers will make it optional, too.

By law, customers across Florida will get 100 days' notice of the change, then may begin deciding whether to drop the coverage. In Pasco and Hernando counties, and to a lesser extent in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, they may drop it and pay lower premiums.

Insurers blame a rash of sinkhole claims in Pasco and Hernando counties for driving up rates there. However, dropping the coverage shifts the burden of paying for repairs to policyholders.

Florida sinkhole ombudsman David Fisher, who works in the financial services department, said consumers should think hard before dropping coverage. Like the flier, he recommended that consumers get advice from an insurance agent and figure out how to pay for sinkhole damage if they drop sinkhole coverage.

"It's really difficult to make a recommendation. But personally myself, if I lived in a sinkhole-prone area, I'd want it," said Fisher, whose data from the past year showed 67 of the 112 sinkhole insurance complaints to him came from Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties. "And it's not just for Citizens, it's for all insurers."

Saying people's need for savings and options justified the changes, Fasano brushed aside the flier by the department run by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. The department's duties include consumer advocacy, with former state comptroller Bob Milligan as the insurance consumer advocate.

Fasano cast Sink and Milligan as millionaires who don't need the savings his constituents do.

"I think Mr. Milligan hasn't a clue about what's going on in Pasco and Hernando counties," Fasano said.

Downplaying differences between the flier and the January rhetoric, Legg said dropping sinkhole coverage is a reasonable option for those whose only other alternative would be to sell their house.

"All things being equal, we would prefer to have sinkhole coverage," said Legg, who wrote with Fasano the change making it an option.

The state's Office of Insurance Regulation - which is connected to but not overseen by the Department of Financial Services - approved the basics of the Citizens plan Jan. 29.

"We want them customers to have a choice," said office spokesman Bob Lotane, though he acknowledged the option comes with risk to consumers who want lower rates. "The temptation is there to go without it."

Lotane said regulators - who recommend as much coverage as possible - will work with insurers to make sure customers get the right information to make a well-informed decision.

While customers statewide will get notices by law at least 100 days before changes are made, Citizens is planning to reach out specifically to Pasco and Hernando customers. Spokesman Rocky Scott said Citizens is looking at sending letters and having a public meeting to help people decide. Fasano said he has asked that any letter for area customers mention the potential savings.

Citizens, the Pasco market's largest insurer, plans to file its finished policy plans by Friday.

The changes could cut unfounded claims for cracking and settling of homes, a key talking point for Fasano, Legg and insurers.

Lotane said claims rejected by insurers end up costing $7,500 to $8,000 to investigate, and he blamed such cases for causing rates to rise. Policies without sinkhole coverage would cover only catastrophic damage. Lesser damage would not be covered, even if it was clearly caused by a sinkhole.

If someone lives in Jacksonville, where sinkhole claims are scarce, the risk and savings would be minimal, Fisher said. But West Central Florida - which geologists report is more susceptible to sinkholes - is a different story, even with higher rates.

"If they were calling from Tampa Bay, I wouldn't tell them to drop it," he said.