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Politics

Berfield: I'm not a patsy for insurers

In a year when insurance is a four-letter word, Kim Berfield is trying to fend off talk that she's an industry friend.

By MELANIE AVE
Published September 22, 2006


To her foes, Kim Berfield is the darling of the insurance industry.

Even the insurance industry seems to agree, naming her legislator of the year for 2004.

But in a year when skyrocketing homeowners insurance has become a prime campaign issue, being a friend of insurance companies is not something a candidate brags about.

And Berfield rejects the label.

"It's not that I always agree with them," Berfield said. "I learn the issues, and I look them square in the eye and say I'm with you or I'm against you and these are the reasons why."

Still, insurance interests have pumped $73,000 into her campaign, 13 percent of her total and nearly 15 times as much as her Democratic opponent, Charlie Justice.

"Why would the industry invest so heavily in one candidate unless they thought she was going to be on their side?" asked Justice, who has gotten $4,900 from insurance interests. "They're supporting who they think will support them."

The Florida Consumer Action Network, a consumer rights group, agrees.

Berfield is "carrying water for the insurance industry," said the group's executive director, Bill Newton. The group endorsed Justice.

Berfield, a 35-year-old advertising consultant from Clearwater, faces Justice, a 38-year-old academic adviser from St. Petersburg, in the Nov. 7 general election. The two House members are vying to represent Senate District 16, which covers parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

It is considered the most competitive Senate race in the state, some political observers say, and money is pouring in from both sides. So far, Berfield has raised $561,000 and Justice $192,000. Including money from both political parties and independent groups, some observers predict $5-million will be spent.

Some Berfield supporters say insurance companies like her because they know her.

Berfield was House Insurance Committee chairwoman in 2003 and 2004 with the power to steer insurance legislation through the chamber.

She was named representative of the year in 2004 by the Florida Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and the Florida Insurance Council.

The award from the Insurance Council recognizes lawmakers who are "involved in proconsumer legislation," said executive director Sam Miller.

Miller said Berfield supported a workers' compensation overhaul four years ago that has rolled back rates for Florida companies by 39 percent.

But critics say the bill saved companies money at the expense of injured workers. Justice voted against it.

Berfield said she has fought insurance companies on homeowners insurance issues at least three times.

As proof of her consumer-minded approach, Berfield points to a bill that strengthened a state reinsurance hurricane fund two years ago. The fund is used by insurance companies to help pay claims after a hurricane or other disaster.

Justice also supported the bill. So did every other lawmaker after four hurricanes pummeled the state.

Berfield said she also passed an amendment on the House floor this year that kept coverage from decreasing for mobile home owners.

"I think if you look at my record, it's been a proconsumer record," Berfield said. "There have been a number of occasions that I have butted heads with the insurance industry."

Berfield and Justice are typically on opposite sides of insurance issues, voting records show.

On the last day of the 2006 legislative session, Berfield supported a bill that gave insurance companies leeway to raise premiums up to 5 percent annually without regulatory review.

It also established a state-funded matching grant for homeowners who make hurricane improvements.

Berfield said she fought an effort by insurance lobbyists for increases of up to 25 percent.

"The tradeoff?" asked Justice, who voted against the bill. "A grant program for rate hikes without government oversight."

Berfield has gotten money from most of the big insurance companies, including AFLAC, Allstate, Golden Rule, Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Auto and Nationwide.

Justice has received money from Nationwide, Golden Rule and Vista Health and a couple of agents, including Seminole agent John Sinibaldi, 50.

Sinibaldi said he faults Berfield for failing to push through a bill five years ago that promised Floridians more protections when buying health insurance from out-of-state companies. Laws were eventually changed, but Sinibaldi said Berfield should have done more to buck insurance companies and then-House Speaker Tom Feeney.

"She has not demonstrated any competence to me in dealing with insurance issues," Sinibaldi said. "Unfortunately I think she's more focused on moving her career forward than doing anything meaningful in the Legislature."

Berfield and Justice agree on one thing: Reforming the insurance industry is a top priority.

Justice supports a Democratic initiative that would create a state wind coverage system that would provide for the first $100,000 in damage.

"It comes down to who do you trust to advocate for your issues?" Justice said.

Berfield said the reinsurance issue needs to be studied first, followed by the business practices of the state-run insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance.

"I find ways to get things done," Berfield said. "I think that's what people are looking for."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com

Senate Bill 1980 in 2006

* Kim Berfield: Yes

* Charlie Justice: No

It established a state matching grant to homeowners who make hurricane improvements. It also gave all insurance companies more leeway to raise premiums by 5 percent annually without regulatory review. It gave a new rate-setting structure for the state-run insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., and created a new way to assess property insurance policyholders when Citizens runs a debt.

Senate Bill 1486 in 2005

* Kim Berfield: No

* Charlie Justice: No

The bill made some modest changes to the state property insurance market, giving consumers some protection against being dumped by their insurance carrier after a storm and giving insurers the ability to get more money out of the hurricane catastrophe fund, particularly after multiple hurricanes.

House Bill 1937 in 2005

* Kim Berfield: Yes

* Charlie Justice: No

The bill placed limits on what insurance companies had to pay for buildings damaged by fire, wind, flooding and hurricanes.

Senate Bill 2488 in 2004

* Kim Berfield: Yes

* Charlie Justice: Yes

The bill expanded the capacity of the state-sponsored reinsurance fund, the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. It lowered the amount of storm-related claims insurance carriers would have to pay before the fund is used and raised the maximum post-hurricane assessment on Florida policyholders.

Senate Bill 50A in 2003

* Kim Berfield: Yes

* Charlie Justice: No

The bill, considered flawed even among supporters, was the most comprehensive change to the state's workers' compensation law in nearly a decade. It made it more difficult for injured workers to collect permanent total disability payments. It also limited the amount of money attorneys for the injured could receive. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation recently said the bill resulted in a 39 percent statewide average rate decrease.

Source: Times research

[Last modified September 22, 2006, 05:48:47]


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