By Toluse Olorunnipa
Despite Florida having no major hurricanes in the last seven years, one-third of the insurance companies that have taken over policies previously held by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. have gone belly up -- and cost taxpayers $400 million.
As Citizens intensifies its efforts to turn over policies to smaller insurers -- what industry officials call "takeout" policies -- there is a growing fear that the young, untested companies will not be able to withstand the hurricane season, which began Saturday.
In the last year, more than 300,000 homeowners have been shifted from state-run Citizens into private companies and 60,000 more must decide whether to leave Citizens and sign up with a new insurer within the next month. While the takeout firms have all been vetted by the state's Office of Insurance Regulation, some resemble OIR-approved companies that ultimately failed after assuming Citizens policies: They are young, growing rapidly and reliant on government incentives to sustain their operations.
"The evaluation and approval process has gotten much better," said Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott, who oversaw several insolvencies as an OIR official. "But there are still vulnerabilities and we will still have companies that will make bad decisions and may take on losses that far exceed their expectations."
Citizens has pushed aggressively to downsize, commissioning a "depopulation committee" to figure out creative ways to encourage private insurers to take over up to half of its 1.3 million policies.
Last month, the Citizens board agreed to pay a 9-month-old St. Petersburg company $52 million to take over 60,000 policies. State leaders blasted the rapidly approved deal with Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance as "tone deaf" and "corporate welfare" for a politically-connected startup.
Citizens President Barry Gilway has defended the deal, calling Heritage "one of the most well-capitalized" firms in Florida. Citizens' Chief Financial Officer acknowledged that Heritage would not be strong enough to take over 60,000 policies this year without the $52 million financial incentive.
Heritage contributed $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's reelection campaign in March, as it began negotiating the unique deal with Citizens. Scott's office said the governor did not influence Citizens to act on behalf of his political contributor.
Homeowners began receiving letters from Heritage last week and have 30 days to opt out before they are automatically shifted out of Citizens.
Scott and business leaders have pushed for Citizens to downsize, claiming that the state-run company is carrying too much risk. If Citizens, which currently has a record amount of cash on hand, were to run out of money, consumers could be forced to pay "assessments" to cover a shortfall. After seven years without a hurricane, it would take a storm larger than Hurricane Andrew to trigger assessments.
But several undercapitalized private insurers have become insolvent without a hurricane, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in "assessments" levied by the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association. FIGA charges insurance companies extra fees to cover the cost of insolvencies, and those costs get passed on to homeowners.
OIR officials, who were not available for comment Friday, have defended their vetting process, even though six of 18 companies approved for takeouts between 2007 and 2011 have failed. Seven non-takeout companies licensed by OIR also failed during that hurricane-free period.
"Florida's insurers must meet rigorous evaluations by the OIR to maintain all appropriate solvency standards," McCarty wrote in a February opinion piece in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
McCarty said that while the private insurers often have low reserves, most have purchased backup insurance, or "reinsurance," to cover a major storm like Hurricane Andrew. He acknowledged that some insolvencies are inevitable, given the difficulties of the Florida marketplace.
Sam Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, said insurers also benefit from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, the state-run reinsurer that is well-capitalized this year.
"You always have some companies that a major event will take them under, but most companies are strong," he said.
With major insurers like State Farm reducing its rolls in recent years, Citizens has relied on smaller, Florida-based firms for its downsizing effort. Despite large financial bonuses to incentivize the private companies, results have been mixed.
Of the 761,000 policies that were transferred out of Citizens between 2007 and 2011, nearly 40 percent have returned, as insurers went under or turned off customers by hiking rates. Many of the companies that accepted, then returned, Citizens policies received more than $150 million in bonuses and loans from the state-run company or taxpayers.
In most cases, the bonuses were not returned.
Citizens, sitting on a massive $6.4 billion cash surplus, has since doubled-down on its practice of giving financial incentives to takeout companies.
The $52 million deal with Heritage, and a previous $63 million deal with Coral Gables-based Weston Insurance, helped Citizens shed tens of thousands of policies and billions of dollars in exposure.
Both Heritage and Weston have been operating for less than a year, with business plans that rely solely on siphoning policies from Citizens. Weston has a B-rating from A.M. Best, the leading insurance rating firm, while Heritage is unrated. Another rating company, Demotech, gave Heritage an A-rating.
In the past, firms with Demotech ratings and takeout-focused business plans have gone under.
Take Magnolia Insurance Company, which also was A-rated by Demotech, until it wasn't.
Despite having heavy debt and no physical office, the Miami-based firm received its property insurance license in 2008. It took over 116,000 Citizens policies that year, but was struggling so much by 2010 that it had be taken over by the state.
Taxpayers ultimately had to pay more than $20 million to cover Magnolia's insolvency, and many of the policyholders returned to Citizens.
The state is now suing global financial services company Allianz to recoup some of that money, saying it gutted Magnolia with "exorbitant" fees to a web of affiliates. Allianz has flatly denied the allegations.
(c)2013 The Miami Herald