Aug. 18--Florida's last-resort insurer Citizens announced a series of changes in a controversial reinspection program Friday -- in some cases suspending big increases in customer bills and offering a free second inspection if a homeowner makes upgrades.
An investigation by The Palm Beach PostAug. 5 highlighted numerous problems infuriating homeowners in a program affecting 250,000 customers. Among them: Citizens inspectors claimed they could not get into attics or verify other building features that protect against hurricanes. By killing discounts for features that harden homes against storms, the program has raised premiums at three out of four homes visited by a total of $137 million.
"Citizens is sensitive to these concerns," said board chairman Carlos Lacasa, noting media coverage helped spur the move along with responses by consumers, advocates and others.
"The reality is, it's time to respond," said president Barry Gilway. In some aspects of the program, he said, "We haven't had a consistent approach."
The company says it will provide a second, free inspection if a customer makes upgrades to a home within 12 months of a Citizens inspection.
In addition, Citizens will suspend the loss of credits in cases where an inspector says he cannot get into an attic to see roof features, officials said. The customer can request a free inspection when roof access is clear.
Also planned: Better communication to customers about why they are losing credits and how they can dispute the results.
Further changes will be considered at the company's Sept. 6 board meeting.
Citizens did not offer to make the changes retroactive, one legislator said -- and he wants them to do so.
"An enormous amount of damage has already been done," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "The customers who have already spent the money to mitigate their homes, and how have now lost their discount due to a questionable inspection, deserve a new inspection under the guidelines Citizens will create."
A Citizens spokeswoman said the senator's request will be shared with board members.
Bonnie Hess of West Palm Beach said her wind-only premium from Citizens doubled to $2,000 because, among other things, the inspector said he could not get into the attic.
"Citizens placed me in the same category of property owners whose roofs are presumably attached with duct tape," Hess said. She paid for her own inspection by another contractor and is waiting to hear if it has any effect.
"These rules have to be changed," Hess said. "They're not fair."
Sometimes a solution can be as simple as cutting away a piece of insulation or moving clothes in a closet that allows access to an attic, executives acknowledged.
Reporting by The Post found widespread backlash against the program as early as December. By August, one Palm Beach County inspector said the company and its contractors wanted him to change nearly half his reports to take away credits. South Florida customers in a lawsuit say the program was a "subterfuge" to raise bills. Even a Citizens board member said she was denied credits after an inspector claimed he could not get into her attic to verify discounts. She later found another inspector who could get up there, but there was no immediate change in her bill.
Inspections took away discounts for 74 percent of more than 225,000 customers through June 30. Premiums jumped 23.5 percent or $600 on average. Some have seen premiums double.
The company has cleared more than $100 million out of $137 million after paying inspectors.
A total of 255,000 homes have been inspected as of early August and 90,000 are still scheduled for reinspection, though the pace has slowed recently, officials said.
Homeowner advocates said the moves are a welcome start but there's lot to fix.
"Citizens has a long way to go to mitigate public opinion," said Sean Shaw, founder of the Policyholders of Florida. "Without more concrete details, policyholders need to take a trust-but-verify approach."
State insurance consumer advocate Robin Westcott said she was "encouraged" Citizens leadership is responding to issues her office has raised. She is scheduled to meet with Citizens executives Monday.
Citizens is the state's largest property with 1.4 million customers, including 140,000 in Palm Beach County.
Changes announced Friday from a company statement:
-- Better Communication: Citizens is launching a broad-based communications initiative aimed at better educating policyholders and agents about the inspection process, credit-eligible mitigation features and the types of documentation needed to qualify for mitigation credits. This will include web-based and direct mail educational materials and visual aids to help policyholders and agents identify mitigation features and information that will help policyholders better protect their homes from storms.
--Second Inspection and Attic Access Issues: If requested, Citizens will provide a follow-up inspection free of charge for policyholders who upgrade their home's features within 12 months of an initial Citizens inspection or who disagree with inspection findings. These follow-up inspections will also be provided for policyholders whose credits are removed due to lack of attic access and later are able to make access available. In addition, Citizens will suspend the removal of credits for a minimum of one year when the inspector is unable to gain access to the attic for any reason.
--Enhanced Dispute Resolution Process: Citizens is enhancing the dispute resolution process to increase transparency and better educate policyholders and agents about their options for disputing inspection findings. Policyholders wishing to dispute their re-inspection should contact their agent, or call Citizens at 1-888-685-1555.
What we uncovered
Post Staff Writer Charles Elmore's digging continues to uncover controversial practices by Citizens Insurance after it inspected hundreds of thousands of Florida homes, increasing premiums on 74 percent of them. One inspector said the company and its contractors wanted him to change nearly half his reports to take away credits.
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