Backroom Briefing: Insurance System in the Crosshairs

Weekly political notes from The News Service of Florida

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Posted September 29, 2022 | By Jim Turner
Florida News Service

Outgoing state Sen. Jeff Brandes hasn’t held back about how he thinks Hurricane Ian will shake the already-fragile property insurance market in Florida.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who clamored in recent legislative sessions for lawmakers to take more-aggressive steps to deal with problems in the market, tweeted some “back of the napkin math” on Monday that state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. could see $10 billion in claims if Ian directly hit the Tampa Bay area.

“If we add in the rest of the industry this could be a 40B+ storm for just insured properties,” added Brandes, who can’t run for re-election in November because of term limits.

Ultimately, Ian made landfall in Lee and Charlotte counties, an area where Citizens has far fewer policies than in the Tampa Bay area. But it remains to be seen how the property-insurance system will withstand the financial wreckage from the massive storm.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called a special legislative session in May that included providing $2 billion in reinsurance — essentially backup coverage — to help shore up private insurers. But problems continued through the summer, as thousands of homeowners a week poured into Citizens after getting dropped by private insurers.

Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway said last week that private insurers were projected to have $1 billion in losses this year — and that statement came before Ian decimated parts of the state.

During appearances this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis has said Florida has the “financial wherewithal right now,” when asked if he has concerns about how the insurance industry would fare in Ian.

“We just did a special session. We put $2 billion into a fund to provide a backstop; it kept a lot of them from going out of business. And this is a problem that we’re going to continue to tackle,” DeSantis told reporters Monday at the state Emergency Operations Center.

“Clearly, there’s other things legislatively, I would like to see done,” DeSantis continued. “I think we will get that done soon. But this is something that we will respond to.”

DeSantis contended many of the Ian claims will involve storm surge and flooding, which is largely covered through the National Flood Insurance Program, rather than by private insurers.

As Ian got closer to shore, DeSantis’ tone shifted somewhat Wednesday morning, acknowledging “there’s going to be a lot of fallout from this in terms of getting people back on their feet.”

“FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) does have programs that can offer support, but the FEMA support is not going to be equal to what you would have gotten in a flood insurance policy,” DeSantis said. “And so that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to look very seriously at in terms of what the impacts are of that.”

Florida has seen six private property insurers deemed insolvent since February while Citizens is handling more than 1 million policies for the first time in nearly a decade.

But DeSantis expressed confidence in Citizens.

“Citizens, I think right now they’re between $6 (billion) and $7 billion of surplus,” DeSantis said Wednesday afternoon. “They’re modeling based on paying out a lot of money in claims for this was that they would still have between $4 (billion) and $5 billion in surplus. And so, they view themselves as being able to weather this.”

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier on Wednesday issued an emergency order temporarily preventing property insurers from dropping customers, while shielding homeowners from losing policies if their properties are damaged.

NOT JUST ANY HAT IN THE STORM

Hurricane Ian’s approach to Florida brought out a familiar fashion statement.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., donned his faded dark-blue cap emblazoned with the word “NAVY” during an appearance Monday at the Collier County Emergency Operations Center in Naples.

His office sent out photos of a casually dressed Scott wearing the cap that became a trademark during hurricanes and other emergencies while he was governor. The cap drew extra prominence during Scot’s 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, which was interrupted when Hurricane Michael hit Mexico Beach weeks before the general election.

Scott’s reliance upon the hat drew scorn from some opponents.

The group VoteVets briefly ran an ad that featured a Navy veteran from Vero Beach who, wearing his own Navy cap, questioned Scott’s time running Columbia/HCA, a hospital company that paid fines for defrauding Medicare and Medicaid.

Scott served 29 months in the Navy in the early 1970s, including time as a radarman aboard the USS Glover. A scale model of the Garcia-class frigate was displayed in the governor’s office during Scott’s time in Tallahassee.

Scott apparently went hatless Tuesday — per office photos — while at the NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in Washington, D.C., for a briefing ahead of Ian’s landfall.

By comparison, DeSantis, also a U.S. Navy veteran, has maintained a dress shirt and jacket — no tie, open collar — during appearances this week in Tallahassee, Largo and Live Oak.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: “Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told media about an hour ago: ‘I am sad to tell you that while we don’t know the full extent of the damage to Lee County right now, we are beginning to get a sense that our community has been in some respects, decimated.’” — Miami Herald reporter Joey Flechas (@joeflech).