Crisis? Top Fla. insurer says cost of controversial claims is falling

Florida property insurers are telling legislators one thing: tough new laws are needed to address a crisis in claims where a third party such as a contractor represents customers.

But to stock analysts, the state’s largest insurer and the biggest in Palm Beach and Broward counties said this: The company’s average cost for such claims has been falling. For two years.

OK, but hasn’t there been an explosion of these claims, involving what is known as “assignment of benefits”?

“We saw a little bit uptick in frequency, nothing major,” Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. CEO Sean Downes told analysts on a fourth-quarter earnings call Wednesday. “But the severity is down.”

Separating genuine problems from hype to influence legislators not been easy lately.

Ratings firm Demotech Inc. has warned 57 Florida insurers are under review and an unspecified number could see lower safety grades in March following 2016 storms and continuing assignment of benefit [AOB] concerns.

That has ignited fears of how mortgage lenders will treat loans at properties protected by lower-graded insurers. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson urged federal officials Tuesday to take any actions necessary to prevent a “disaster” if mass numbers of Florida homeowners land in default.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require borrowers to buy insurance from companies with at least an A rating, Nelson said. If several get a B, he said, thousands of homeowners “could suddenly find themselves in default on their home loans.”

For its part, Fort Lauderdale-based Universal has more than 572,000 policies statewide, almost 100,000 more than No. 2 state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., according to state records.

In 2014, Universal’s average AOB claim for a standard HO-3 homeowner policy cost about $21,000, Downes said. In 2o15, it was around $19,400 and is expected to be about $19,000 for 2016, Downes said. Why? In part because Universal is getting to the claim “with a fast-track team,” he said.

Property insurers say AOB abuses are causing higher rates in South Florida and require a legislative fix. If attorneys get involved, costs can skyrocket, they say.

In opposition, contractors and attorneys say some proposals are fine — such as notify the insurance company quickly — but others go too far to block consumer rights to representation or gut laws allowing winning attorneys to collect fees.

“This is an attempt to keep high profits and raise premiums,” said Nicole Vinson, a Tampa attorney who sues insurers. “The carriers could easily remedy any improper suits by winning the court battles.”

Downes made clear to analysts he sees a problem and a need for legislative action, but said his own company was taking what steps it could.

Last year, Universal proposed a regionwide rate increase of 8.1 percent for homeowners across South Florida including Palm Beach County, citing AOB among the reasons. Universal consultant Kenneth L. Leonard Jr. said “increasing trends in the Tri-County region” create “additional uncertainty” not “captured through techniques traditionally followed to develop individual territory indications.”

But regulators questioned the vague, blanket justification and Universal withdrew the request.

For next year, Downes said a rate increase was likely but he did not specify how much.

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