Amid problems in Florida’s property-insurance market, a Senate committee Tuesday backed a controversial proposal that could lead to many policyholders picking up more of the tab for roof damage and limit attorney fees in insurance disputes.
The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee approved a bill (SB 76) filed after regulators last year signed off on dozens of double-digit rate increases for private insurers and as the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has seen a flood of new customers.
Supporters of the bill, sponsored by committee Chairman Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, say it is aimed at holding down insurance premiums and addressing fraud and costly litigation.
“What we are facing right now in the state of Florida is a death spiral in the world of property insurance,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who said he recently saw his insurance rates go up by more than 20 percent.
But opponents said the changes would hurt consumers and restrict their ability to fight insurers in court.
“Does something need to be done? Yes, it does,” Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. “Does it all need to fall … on our citizens and policyholders? I don’t think so.”
A key part of the bill focuses on payments for roof damage, as insurers contend the industry faces a barrage of questionable or fraudulent claims and schemes in which homeowners are solicited to file for repairs.
Boyd’s bill would allow insurers to use what is described as a “roof surface reimbursement schedule.”
Under the proposal, reimbursements could vary based on ages and types of roofs. For example, insurers would be required to provide full replacement coverage for roofs less than 10 years old. But they would be allowed to provide less coverage for other roofs — effectively leading to policyholders with older roofs facing the possibility of paying more out-of-pocket costs to repair damage.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, repeatedly raised concerns Tuesday that consumers would not be adequately informed about such a change and might not be able to afford additional costs for roof repairs.
Taddeo said she was thinking about “the abuela back in my district. These are people who are not necessarily savvy when they sign these (insurance) contracts.”
But Boyd, an insurance broker, said it is the job of insurance agents to explain such changes to policyholders. He said the overall aim is to make insurance more affordable.
“Ultimately, the goal of this is to lower costs to consumers,” Boyd said.
The bill also includes proposed changes such as reducing the amount of time from three years to two years that policyholders would have to file claims after damage. Also, it would require policyholders to provide notice to insurers at least 60 days before filing lawsuits.
In addition, the measure would try to limit fees paid to attorneys who represent policyholders. As an example, Florida allows plaintiffs to collect attorney fees when they prevail in cases against insurance companies, with the amounts typically set by a calculation of the number of hours spent on a case and a reasonable hourly rate.
But courts also can approve what are known as “contingency risk multipliers” that increase the fees. Under the bill, however, contingency risk multipliers could only be awarded “in a rare and exceptional circumstance with evidence that competent counsel could not be retained in a reasonable manner.”
Opponents said the bill could make it harder for policyholders to find attorneys to handle claims, limiting their ability to go to court. But insurers have long blamed plaintiffs’ lawyers for driving up costs in the system.
The bill drew support Tuesday from insurers and opposition from plaintiffs’ attorneys, likely setting the stage for a lobbying fight during the legislative session that will start March 2.
State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier last month spoke to the Senate committee about financial problems in the private insurance market, including higher rates and a lack of availability of coverage. Altmaier, for example, cited 105 rate filings by property insurers during the first 10 months of 2020, with 55 resulting in approved rate increases of more than 10 percent.
The problems have helped drive many policyholders to Citizens, which was created as an insurer of last resort but now has what Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway described as “highly competitive” rates with private companies. That goes against a longstanding effort by state leaders to shift policies out of Citizens and into the private market.