New storm for Citizens

It's not a new hurricane slamming the insurer. It's new law that may leave it less able to pay claims.

Published March 1, 2007

Hurricane season is still three months away and Citizens Property Insurance is already struggling with two serious money issues, courtesy of new state law, not storms:

- Newly mandated premium discounts could cost the state-backed insurer of last resort nearly $200-million.

- A program designed by lawmakers to shrink Citizens offers less of a financial incentive to private insurers to "take out" Citizens policies than the program it replaced.

The net effect: not only is Citizens poised to keep growing at warp speed, it could have less money to pay claims. That sets the stage for what Citizens officials fear could be a massive rate increase next year.

The Citizens board of governors meets today in Jacksonville to try to find a way to comply with the new law and remain on solid financial footing.

"We have to figure a way to get to a level of financial stability where we can pay claims without making assessments," Citizens spokesman Rocky Scott said Wednesday.

The company has no choice. By law, Citizens and all other property insurers will have to double most of the mitigation discounts they offer to policyholders who harden their homes. In the case of Citizens, those discounts will jump from a maximum of about 45 percent to 90 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

Depending on how many homeowners take advantage of all or part of the discounts, it could cost Citizens up to $182-million.

That wouldn't be a major problem except that lawmakers in January mandated that Citizens had to roll its rates back to 2006 levels. That move alone cost the company $350-million in premiums.

"The rate rollback this year, while a good thing for consumers, means even less money goes in," Scott explained.

Add the rollback to the increased discounts and the total of potential lost revenue is about $532-million.

Another problem is wild growth. Citizens is taking in about 50,000 new policies a month, helped along by the new law that allows the company to compete in a marketplace where its rates are sometimes cheaper than private carriers.

Citizens policyholders also are now allowed the option to stay with the company even if a private insurer is willing to take their policy.

Even before the new law, most insurance companies were reluctant to take policies out of Citizens even when they were promised bonuses to do so.

Of Citizens' more than 1.3-million policies, just 67,800 were removed by a private insurer in 2006. The last time Citizens policies were removed from the company's high risk account was a year ago, when Tampa-based HomeWise removed about 7,800.

In the past, the private companies received bonuses of about $200 for each Citizens policy they took on, as long as the company kept the policy at least three years.

That will change, courtesy of the new law. Starting Jan. 1, private companies will get $100 per policy and be required to keep it five years.

"We are compelled to follow the Legislature," said Lee Stuart, Citizens depopulation manager. "And we wanted to implement the five-year part of the law immediately."

Among the few companies that have taken on the higher-risk policies: Dallas startup American Integrity Insurance Co. of Florida, which recently was approved to absorb as many as 90,000 Citizens policies starting March 15.

American Integrity has agreed not to take bonuses from the state. But unless its rates are below Citizens', policyholders have little reason to leave.

-- Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or 7272893-8247.