Rate reformers step up pressure

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Randy Diamond
Published  January 20, 2007

Ginny Stevans has never been politically active in her life until now.

In a matter of months she went from being a quiet Pasco County antiques dealer to a player in the endgame that will determine whether there will be major insurance rate relief for Florida homeowners.

She may not be a big player, but just entering the bumpy political terrain that surrounds Florida's insurance crisis is an accomplishment. It is territory that has been well-charted by the insurance industry.

But Stevans and others like her are finding their way fairly quickly. While legislators in the House and Senate were trying to reach a compromise Friday night, Stevans' group, Having Affordable Coverage, was sending e-mails to its roughly 1,000 members.

HAC's general request is classic grass-roots organizing. It asks its people to contact their elected representatives through e-mails, phone calls and faxes. Step up the pressure.

But it has a specific goal. HAC supports the Senate plan. Their top priority is to keep it in the Senate and get it into the House version: probations against insurer raising rates, as they now can, before insurance regulators even review the hikes.

This is where the consumer has to be vigilant, according to Stevans.

"What happens now is the insurance companies will do their best to weaken the proposals,'' she explained in an e-mail Thursday night. "They'll have Friday and the weekend to engage in horse trading. We should fear that.''

Meanwhile, about twenty other consumer groups were sending out their own messages to members, likewise urging them to apply pressure to legislators to bring meaningful rate reform.

They include FIRM, which comprises a group of homeowners in the Florida Keys, the Florida Consumer Action Network, Florida Public Interest Research Group and several condominium organizations.

The groups had been talking informally over the last few months, but about two months ago they realized they were much stronger together. The groups wanted to send a unified message that legislative action was needed on rate relief, so they teamed up.

"It can get confusing for legislators to hear various messages from different consumer groups," said Bill Newton, who directs the Florida Consumer Action Network.

The groups organized a demonstration on Tuesday, the opening day of the special legislative session. It provided a united voice along with a sound bite.

Meanwhile, different members of the coalition have made their presence felt throughout the week. The Keys group chartered a plane and sent up 30 homeowners.

Stevans, 39, said she had never felt an urge to get involved in politics, but she joined newly formed HAC in March because she was upset over homeowners insurance rate increases.

Stevans said her policy with State Farm had doubled to almost $3,000 within a span of several years, while her elderly parents saw their policy with Citizens Property Insurance Corp. leap from $600 to $3,800 over four years.

It was more than they could afford. Her parents dropped their windstorm policy. Friends and neighbors had similar stories, with some putting their homes on the market.

Some worried about losing their property because they couldn't make the payments anymore.

"It tugs at your heart," Stevans said.

She quickly rose to president of the group and started calling on state politicians to take action through petition drives and rallies. But most politicians ignored HAC, including then-governor candidate Charlie Crist. He refused to meet with the group. ''We got a form letter saying his schedule was filled,'' Stevans said.

But last week, Crist met with Stevans, Newton and other rate relief activists in the governor's Tallahassee office as television cameras rolled. Crist promised he would not sign a bill from lawmakers that did not deliver rate relief.

While political leaders can ignore a group of 1,000 people, it's harder to ignore a coalition of 500,000 , the number of the combined larger organizations, Stevans said.

She said she hopes Crist will "put his foot down'' and not let legislators be swayed by the powerful insurance industry.

FIRM, the Keys homeowners group, joined the coalition for the same reasons that by itself it was not going to garner the attention of state politicians, said Cindy DeRocher, one of its original members.

She said the Keys have only one representative in the legislature and very little media presence.

DeRocher was motivated to join FIRM after the cost of windstorm coverage for her house in Key West rose from $5,000 to $9,000 in December 2005.

Shortly thereafter, she and 32 other neighbors decided to do something about the bills. They persuaded Monroe County to hire an actuary to review the rates, which ultimately led to a 32 percent reduction.

"We showed what the power of the people can do,'' she said.

Consumer Insurance Coalition Grows, Unites Behind Insurance Proposal