Legislators question record 2006 profits of insurers in state

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

Published  December 5, 2006


TALLAHASSEE The property insurance industry in hurricane-battered Florida will make a record $3 billion in profits in 2006, according to a report released Monday.

The report, given to state lawmakers gathered for a three-day insurance conference, also shows that Florida insurers lost more than $14 billion from the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, wiping out profits from the previous seven years.

The numbers quickly became a point of strong debate among Florida House members Monday. Although insurance industry claims and losses from the hurricanes have been well publicized, its profits and earnings are not as well known.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, called the special insurance conference to educate legislators on "fundamentals that drive the property insurance issue." Organizers say they also want to create opportunities to brainstorm before the special session on the issue, which starts Jan. 16.

But the report, the focus of the opening day of the conference, presented the problem through the eyes of the Insurance Information Institute, a public-relations arm of the insurance industry. Critics took issue with insurance interests presenting the problem, arguing that part of the state's problems stem from the industry already having been heard too readily in Tallahassee.

"What about insurance company investment income?'' asked Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami. He noted that the report on industry losses didn't show the other side of the equation, including profits on investments insurers made.

Gov.-elect Charlie Crist wasn't in Tallahassee. He said last week, however, that his goal was real change for consumers. Crist said he did not want to settle for a slowing of rate hikes; he wanted to see insurance rates reduced.

But Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Jacksonville, who moderated Monday's session, told fellow lawmakers that consumers expecting immediate results from a special session in the form of lower rates will be disappointed.

Although the report estimated the Florida homeowners insurance industry will make a record $3 billion this year, it also says that for two decades, homeowners insurance has been a money-losing proposition in Florida. It attributes that to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the eight hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

Bob Hartwig, chief economist for the insurance institute and the report's author, said higher premiums in Florida combined with hurricane-free weather allowed the industry to be extremely profitable this year.

Hartwig said that before this year, the property insurance industry never made more than $1.9 billion in a particular year. He said the insurance industry in Florida makes small profits in most years, but then there have been years with huge hurricane losses.

Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, presented Hartwig's report to the 108 House members at Monday's conference. He argued that a profitable year does not change the overall equation for the insurance industry. He said past losses and concerns about future losses are pushing the property insurance industry out of Florida.

Brown's solution is to end state regulation of rates, allowing insurers to charge whatever they want. He says the competition among insurers that would result ultimately would lower rates.

"The only thing more sinister than overtaxing is over-regulation,'' said Brown, an insurance agent.

Democrats and some Republicans from South Florida challenged his call to end rate regulation and assumption that selling homeowners insurance in Florida is a money-losing proposition.

Reps. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, and Shelley Vana, D-Lantana, asked for information about the profits insurance companies earned since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"I believe the premiums we've been paying since Andrew were supposed to take into account the kind of catastrophes we had the last few years," Vana said.

Robaina questioned a statement in Brown's report that insurance companies in Florida enjoy small profits but suffer large losses.

"I don't believe that's a fair and honest statement," Robaina said. "Why would any company stay in business in Florida if that's been the status quo?