tampabay.com

Citizens' new site asks for suggestions

Go ahead, tell the state insurer what you really think. That's the purpose of its new Web access.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published November 28, 2006


It's like the marriage of Gov. Jeb Bush's Property Insurance Reform Committee and the grass roots advocacy group Homeowners Against Citizens.

But maybe this is something that should have happened two years ago.

Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty on Monday unveiled a new Web site that will allow anyone to submit suggestions to Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort that now insures one in three Florida homes and is often the target of anger over rising premiums.

The Web site, www.CitizensForABetterCitizens.com, is intended to run in conjunction with three public hearings Citizens is required to hold around the state.

A link to the new Web site can also be found on the Florida Office of Insurance Regulations's home page. But it cannot be reached via Citizens Property's own Web page.

Bush and members of the Florida Cabinet in September approved a motion by Attorney General Charlie Crist that rejected a proposed plan of operations for Citizens, saying it failed to recognize its responsibility to its policyholders. Crist has since been elected governor.

Citizens, which has just 750 employees compared with the thousands employed by comparable private companies, was ordered to schedule the hearings to solicit suggestions on how it can improve customer service and operate in a more efficient manner.

The first public hearing was Monday in Key West. The dates and locations of the remaining two hearings have not been finalized but will be posted on the Citizens For A Better Citizens Web site.

After completing the hearings, Citizens will be required to submit an amended plan of operation by Jan. 31.

The new Web site allows those not able to attend any of the hearings to fill out a form and submit suggestions, which will be passed on to Citizens staff.

But the Web site and the hearings come at a time when complaints about Citizens service have dramatically declined.

In 2004, policyholder complaints totaled 9,831 out of 130,000 claims filed.

In 2005, complaints totaled 1,216 out of 165,000 claims filed, an 88 percent reduction.

This year, complaints are expected to decline again.

"When you consider the number of policies we have acquired in the last year, about 17,000 new policies a week, and with one quarter of the staff of a company our size in the private sector, it's pretty good," Citizens spokesman Rocky Scott said Monday.

"Does that mean we don't make mistakes? No, we do. But it's obvious we're getting better."

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