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Ruling: Insurers can drop policies

Homeowners once warned of cancellation are again at risk.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published February 20, 2007


If this were a tennis game, the score would be: advantage insurance companies.

The moratorium to keep Florida property insurance companies from canceling policies or raising rates got dramatically smaller Monday - from nearly a year to a matter of weeks.

Bad news for tens of thousands of Florida homeowners who received cancellation notices recently and then thought they got a reprieve from the state; good news for the companies that wanted to drop them.

A week ago, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty ruled that an emergency order by the Florida Cabinet calling for a moratorium on canceling homeowner policies or raising rates ran from Jan. 31 through most of this year. That included policyholders who had recently received a nonrenewal notice. So some insurers, such as Nationwide, started telling some of those dropped policyholders they weren't being dropped after all.

Follow so far?

Last week, the Florida Insurance Council, the state's main insurance trade group, asked a state appeals court to overturn the rule, arguing it was too vague about timing and didn't specify whether some companies would have to agree to continue covering customers they had previously notified they were dropping.

The companies' main fear was that the rule would prevent them from canceling policies for an extended period.

Their fear was unwarranted, based on a new order from McCarty's office Monday.

McCarty's revised order moved up the date insurance companies could file for new rates by several weeks. In one way, it could be a victory for policyholders because they could see lower premiums sooner.

"The most important thing is to get rate relief to people as soon as possible," said Chris Kise, counsel to Gov. Charlie Crist.

But McCarty's ruling also effectively moved up the date insurance companies can drop policies, as long as they give policyholders 100 days' notice.

As a result, the insurance council dropped its lawsuit.

The new interpretation is "something the companies can live with," said insurance council spokesman Sam Miller. "The clarification in this order addresses all of our concerns. The nonrenewals in the pipeline can be carried out."

The company affected the most is Allstate Floridian, which has shed nearly a quarter-million policies in the past two years. Many of those policyholders were directed to another insurance company, but they were dropped nonetheless.

"The emergency rule clearly impacted our ability to make appropriate business decisions and to maintain the financial rating that we need to have," said Allstate Floridian spokesman Adam Shores.

"We feel the order today brings clarity, because there was a lot of confusion out there as to what the emergency order meant."

Miller said policyholders should contact their agent if there is any doubt that the new ruling affects them.

Regardless of the interpretation, Monday's order adds to policyholders' angst.

"Any time the insurance industry is told something that's not to their liking, they run out and try to bomb you through the back door," said Ginny Stevans, president of Having Affordable Coverage, a 1,000-member insurance consumer advocacy group based in New Port Richey.

"People are scared and holding their breath on this. Not canceling policies was giving people time to figure out how to pay their insurance."

Or whether to stay in Florida. "My husband spends every night on the computer," Stevans said, "looking for a new place to live."

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

What it means

For the third time, insurance regulators "clarified" their interpretation of a new state rule intended to prevent insurers from dropping policies or imposing rate hikes over the next few months. The new interpretation means insurers can start dropping some policyholders next month, but they have to file with regulators to cut rates for their remaining customers at the same time.