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Sinkhole coverage opt-out debated

A county-hired attorney says an opt-out form should not be necessary.

By DAVID DeCAMP
Published February 7, 2007


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DADE CITY - County-hired attorneys want customers to save more than money on their homeowners insurance.

They also want to save them ink. That left two County Commissioners doing a double-take Tuesday over the potential risks.

State regulators want customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to sign a form if they want to drop sinkhole coverage and cut their bills significantly.

But attorney Tim Volpe, whom the county hired to press for better insurance rates, calls the form "wrong-headed." Volpe wants Citizens to drop sinkhole coverage from its standard policies without customers having to sign a form. In that scenario, the impetus would be on homeowners to seek optional sinkhole coverage if they want it.

The Citizens' opt-out form goes beyond a new state law and could confuse customers, said Volpe and assistant county attorney Elizabeth Blair. Volpe also said customers could be reluctant to drop the sinkhole coverage, which he said has allowed for a cottage industry of questionable claims and high rates.

While not acting specifically on that issue, the commissioners approved paying Volpe and an actuary an extra $25,000 each and extending their contracts. Last year, they agreed to pay them $50,000 a piece.

But afterward, Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Michael Cox, who had roles pushing Volpe's work, said they didn't initially understand the details of Volpe's position on the form. Cox and Mulieri prefer customers have to sign a form to drop coverage.

"I think there should be something in there telling people they have no sinkhole coverage and to sign something," Mulieri said.

In January's special session, legislators approved a bill allowing sinkhole coverage to be optional statewide, but requiring insurers to cover collapses that condemn a home. Customers in Pasco and Hernando counties - hardest hit by sinkhole claims - would halve their premiums under last week's order. Private insurers are expected to follow state-run Citizens with proposals.

The new law also said insurers must inform customers in a bold-print type that a policy lacks coverage for sinkholes. But lawmakers decided not to require any signed forms.

Last week, however, the state Office of Insurance Regulation ordered Citizens to make sinkhole coverage standard in policies unless customers sign the form opting out. Citizens had proposed excluding sinkhole coverage from homeowners policies automatically, unless customers sought to buy it.

Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty told the Times in December he preferred that customers be given the chance to opt out, because of the risks to people who are not well informed. County officials are planning a public awareness campaign about dropping sinkhole coverage.

Regulators are awaiting a revised policy filing by Citizens, providing the chance for final changes, Volpe said. A decision is due within 3 1/2 months.

Chris Kowalczyk, vice president of Pasco-based Having Affordable Coverage, said a separate form was not necessary, but a draft form by the regulatory agency created questions. The draft said coverage would be dropped in future annual policies, which he said made it seem as if people could not buy back sinkhole coverage later.

In fact, a Citizens spokesman said customers who drop sinkhole coverage would be able to add it later, if they so desire.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

Cover vs. not cover

Sinkhole coverage in Pasco County by the numbers:

8.4 Percent rate cut ordered specifically on sinkhole coverage in noncoastal Pasco for insurance with Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

60.4 Rate cut ordered for noncoastal Pasco homeowners who drop sinkhole coverage with Citizens.

$26.2 million savings estimated for noncoastal Pasco customers dropping sinkhole coverage

Source: Attorney Tim Volpe

 

Other commission news

The board approved two agreements for separate areas of northwest Pasco County on Tuesday:

NEW PARK: An agreement with Sun West Acquisitions for design of a 316-acre park calls for extending a canal into the Gulf of Mexico, and building places for boat slips and 200 cars. An observation deck would overlook the gulf and nearby beaches. It's near an old mine, and Sun West is providing $3-million to build it. Commissioners, however, didn't like one thing: the name. Belcher Mine Park lacked a zesty ring, so several commissioners said a new moniker will be picked.

SIDEWALK DEAL: The Beacon Woods neighborhood, which could soon be neighbors to a Wal-Mart Supercenter off U.S. 19 north of State Road 52, will get $161,000 from the county to match the retailer's contribution for sidewalks. The neighborhood, home to Commissioner Jack Mariano, wanted more money as part of its neighborhood association's agreement with plans for the store.

 

[Last modified February 6, 2007, 22:41:44]


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