Citizens skips sinkhole coverage

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published  May 10, 2007

When your homeowners policy with Citizens comes up for renewal after Sept. 1, look closely for the word "sinkhole."

That's because sinkhole coverage will disappear for customers in Pasco and Hernando counties - the heart of Florida's "sinkhole alley" - unless they make a point to add it.

As policies come up for renewal, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. automatically will drop sinkhole coverage from standard homeowners policies in Pasco and Hernando counties. Customers who want the coverage will have to buy it.

Dropping the coverage could save Pasco and Hernando customers a bundle. But then only collapses that make a home uninhabitable will be insured. Major cracks from sinkholes will not be covered.

"We were really hoping for an opt-out, " said Ginny Stevans, president of Having Affordable Coverage, based in Pasco. "This was what we were worried about happening."

In every other county, sinkhole coverage will remain in standard Citizens policies, according to Wednesday's announcement by state regulators. Those customers could drop it if they wanted to save money.

State consumer advocates warn against going without sinkhole coverage, especially in west-central Florida. Geologists say sinkholes are more likely here.

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation had sought to automatically include optional sinkhole coverage, which Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said was best for consumers. Citizens, beset by sinkhole claims it questions, wanted that coverage out of standard policies.

Enter state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, with a measure that Citizens spokesman Rocky Scott said allowed the insurer to do what it wanted. The amendment created a "pilot program" allowing Citizens to automatically drop sinkhole coverage for unnamed counties - code for Pasco and Hernando - without an end date.

Legg said McCarty went along after local lawmakers pressed for the approval.

"He got calls from some unhappy people, " Legg said, "including myself."

The OIR did not respond to questions Wednesday about its order.

Fasano defended the exclusion of sinkhole coverage in parts of his district.

"What's consumer-friendly right now, in my opinion, is getting to the point where people can afford their homes again, " Fasano said.

Pasco customers will see discounts of up to 60 percent without sinkhole coverage, and Hernando customers will have decreases of up to 58 percent, according to the state order.

Customers in Hillsborough and Pinellas will see a fraction of that cut in premiums.

Citizens plans public meetings and advertising to inform customers of the plan.

State law requires consumers receive bold-print notices that policies lack sinkhole insurance.

But Stevans said her group is worried that customers will seek the savings without considering long-term effects.

The group also is advising people to check with their mortgage lenders, because some small banks have said they want people to keep sinkhole coverage.

"What a mess, " she said.

Fast Facts:

Sinkhole coverage ins and outs

Pasco and Hernando:

These Citizens customers will need to "opt in." If not, when their policy renews after Sept. 1, their sinkhole coverage is automatically dropped.

The rest of Florida:

Citizens customers in all other counties will need to "opt out" if they don't want sinkhole coverage. They will not be automatically dropped.