- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Daylight brought a clearer view Thursday of the devastation Hurricane Ian brought to the southwest portion of the state, and on its heels a renewed fear that the massive storm will further unravel Florida’s deeply troubled homeowners insurance market.

Democratic candidates are seizing on the panic and frustration to help elevate their prospects against opponents and a Republican-leaning electorate just a few weeks before the midterm elections.

Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 10th Congressional District and is running against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, wasted no time proposing her plan to use federal dollars to help Florida residents dealing with dropped insurance plans and crushing premium increases.

In the governor’s race, Democrat Charlie Crist took a swing at Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican he is hoping to unseat in November. He said Mr. DeSantis is doing too little to lower premiums or help the thousands of Floridians dropped by insurance carriers or left without coverage after several companies folded.

Mr. DeSantis said Thursday that he is planning more action to reform the industry. For now, he said, he is focused on mobilizing state insurance officials and insurance companies to help homeowners process claims for losses from Ian.

He has blocked all homeowner policy cancellations issued 10 days before the storm and is setting up “insurance villages” in affected areas where people can file claims and, in many cases, receive checks on the spot.

“At the end of the day. We’ve had a lot of issues with property insurance, but a lot of that is because of lawsuits and a lot of things that don’t focus on the core business,” Mr. DeSantis said. “This is the core business of paying these claims. And we understand that time is of the essence.”

Mr. Crist, who was governor from 2007 to 2011, called Mr. DeSantis “the worst property insurance governor in Florida history, period.” He said Mr. DeSantis stood by while insurance companies doubled rates and “they’re still going belly-up when homeowners need them most.”

Although the campaign claim is not exactly true, the problem has hardly been resolved under the leadership of Mr. DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature. Ian has elevated insurance reform to a leading issue in Mr. DeSantis’ bid for a second term.

Mr. Crist trails Mr. DeSantis by almost 5 percentage points in polls.

The insurance market for homeowners in Florida has been spiraling into chaos for years, mostly because of roofing replacement insurance scams and regular batterings from damaging storms.

The damage has caused a half-dozen insurance companies to pull out of the state and has led to skyrocketing rates. The average premium increase this year is more than 40%. Tens of thousands of policyholders have been dropped, partly because of roofs that are aging but undamaged. Companies are trying to avoid roof replacement scams.

The Legislature met in special session ahead of hurricane season this spring and passed two bills, signed into law by Mr. DeSantis, that are supposed to help stabilize the insurance market and eventually reduce rates.

The new laws make it harder for insurance companies to deny coverage for homeowners with undamaged roofs up to 15 years old and limit attorney fees that are fueling insurance scam lawsuits.

The legislation provided $2 billion to shore up insurance companies for hurricane losses and requires them to lower rates if they accept state help.

The legislation did little to provide for residents coping with sharp cost increases, which in some cases have more than doubled premiums.

“The Florida Legislature should have addressed this but did not,” one resident of Fernandina Beach, in Northern Florida, lamented in a Facebook chat on the subject. “Vote accordingly.”

With frustrated and angry ratepayers in mind, Democrats are promoting a different approach to insurance regulation that would rely on federal funding to shore up carriers and force lower rates.

Mr. Crist, who resigned his congressional seat in May, and Mrs. Demings are sponsors of legislation that would provide federal funding to reduce reinsurance rates hobbling insurance carriers.

“We must show leadership and stand up for working families, stop the losses, stop the rate hikes, and stop companies from gauging hardworking families,” said Mrs. Demings, who is trailing Mr. Rubio by about 3 percentage points.

Mr. Crist announced a multipoint plan to lower insurance rates. If elected, he said, he would remove Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, who has allowed several rate increases, and would install a commissioner who would block rate hikes.

During his term as governor, Mr. Crist vetoed rate increases for insurance companies. State Farm Florida, the largest property insurer, left the state. Mr. Crist said during his term that he cut premiums “across the board” by 10%.

Randy Fine, a Republican who represents Brevard County in the Florida House of Representatives, said Democrats “want to politicize the issue” but agreed that more legislative action to fix the insurance industry is needed. Lawmakers are mulling several changes to try to curb scam insurance lawsuits over roofing claims, among them a requirement that lawyers pay the carrier’s legal fees if the lawsuit is deemed frivolous.

“Fraudulent claims drive up costs,” Mr. Fine said.

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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