Lawmakers hear about insurance pains

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  January 4, 2007

DADE CITY - Ralph Perritano lives far away from areas in west Pasco riddled with high sinkhole claims and some of Florida's highest insurance rates.

Still, the 69-year-old Dade City man expects bigger insurance bills to come his way when he renews his policy in April. He wonders how he will pay for it.

"I had a stroke last year. I can't work," Perritano said at a public hearing Wednesday evening at the historic county courthouse in Dade City.

The hearing was led by state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, whose districts include parts of Pasco. Another hearing will be at 6 p.m. Friday at the University Area Community Center Complex in Tampa.

The lawmakers are gathering feedback before the special legislative session Jan. 16 on Florida's insurance crisis.

While residents most often directed anger at insurers, some questioned how committed lawmakers were to making big changes.

Weatherford suggested that reforming the insurance system required "finesse," bringing scoffs from the crowd. Some residents retorted that insurers have used little finesse while instituting huge rate increases in recent years.

West Pasco gets more attention for insurance rate increases, but Weatherford told the crowd of 60 that east Pasco property owners, the core of his district, also are paying more because of sinkhole claims that drove up rates.

Last year, state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. raised rates an average of 139 percent in coastal Pasco. Citizens' average increase for the rest of Pasco was 76 percent. Though Citizens is the county's leading insurer, property owners face increases, or dropped policies, from private insurers too.

"Companies can't afford it. We're putting businesses out of business, as well as homeowners," said Elsie Wren, owner of Bay Insurors of Lutz, an independent insurance agency.

Former County Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer, representing 40 residents of Club Villas condominiums in Land O'Lakes, said the complex's combined premium went to $40,000 from $7,800.

"It increased $85 a month for the residents' fees. That is a big deal for people on fixed incomes," Zimmer said.