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Poe cleanup in full swing for Citizens

The state-run insurer officially takes over most of Poe's 320,000 policies today, working in Poe's Tampa office.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published July 1, 2006


TAMPA - Steve Bitar spends at least 12 hours a day at the office, works weekends, and hasn't been home in almost three weeks.

But he doesn't seem to mind.

"We're part of something unprecedented," Bitar said Friday afternoon at a desk in a borrowed, barren office. "If we weren't here, what would people do?"

Today, Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer homeowners turn to when they can't find insurance anywhere else, officially takes over most of the more than 320,000 policies left behind by Poe Financial Group. The collapse of several Poe subsidiaries marks the biggest insurance failure in Florida history.

The substantial effort behind the transition - transferring policies, notifying policyholders and answering thousands of questions - is taking place in Poe's former Harbour Island headquarters near downtown Tampa. And Bitar, who lives in Jacksonville, is in charge.

Three Poe subsidiaries - Atlantic Preferred, Southern Family and Florida Preferred - were ordered liquidated by a Leon County judge May 31. The company, which grew in large part by taking policies out of Citizens and its predecessor, didn't have the money to pay thousands of claims from the 2004-05 hurricanes.

Since most of the Poe policies were in coastal, or high-risk, areas, Bitar said at least 80 percent of them will end up in Citizens, which has had a little more than a month to set up shop in Tampa.

"It was the most logical place to locate our new offices," Bitar said. "We are able to provide coverage with no lapse, which for something of this size is amazing."

At some later point, Bitar said, Citizens will have to find a new home because Poe's old headquarters is in an "A" evacuation zone, and employees might not be able to get to work after a storm.

But for now, there are more computers and phone lines to be brought in.

A portrait of company founder William Poe Sr. still hangs in the lobby on the seventh floor, signifying how it was home to what was once the second-largest property insurer in the state.

But the people tapping at computers in their cubicles now are employed by Citizens, which started moving in in mid May.

Of the nearly 300 people Poe had employed, Citizens hired 148. It will add more staff this month.

Citizens' Tampa office is taking so many phone calls from worried policyholders - about 4,500 a day - that it had to extend the hours of its call center and ask its staff in Jacksonville to take on part of the load.

Poe had to be prodded by the courts and the Department of Financial Services to turn over documents to the state. The company has also filed a lawsuit against Citizens in an attempt to collect commissions on about 80,000 of its former policies.

But Bitar said Poe officials have been cooperative, and the transition has been smooth.

Asked what he and his staff needed most, Bitar thought for a moment.

"If we can have a little understanding from the public," he said. "It's hard to understand insurance. Even some people in the business don't get everything.

"I wish people would just look at the big picture. We cover people who can't find insurance anywhere else, and we charge more because we don't want to drive the private market away, and because it's the law.

"All of this is happening because we want to help," he said.

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or 727 893-8247.

[Last modified July 1, 2006, 00:37:14]


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