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Citizens, spinoffs top 2005 complaint list

TALLAHASSEE — Citizens Property Insurance and its spin-off insurance companies again lead the state in hurricane-related complaints — though the industry as a whole is drawing less fire than last year.

Regulators show Florida’s insurer of last resort has incurred more than five times the number of complaints against Florida’s largest private insurers, State Farm and Allstate.

The most complaints involve Atlantic Preferred, a Florida-based company built on about 81,000 policies taken out from Citizens. Its 791 complaint calls are nearly twice as many complaints as any other insurer in Florida, including Citizens itself, which is second with 473.

The Department of Financial Services’ complaint line has logged 2,996 questions about insurance from the 2005 hurricane season.

“We’re not leading the pack as we were last year, and we are proud of that,” Citizens spokesman Justin Glover said. “We have had some reports of adjuster delays but at this point in the game, and with the amount of claims we have, some adjusting delays are to be expected.”

Citizens reports more than 150,000 policyholder claims for the 2005 hurricane season, about 30,000 more than 2004.

Though 61 percent of its claims from Hurricane Wilma have not yet been adjusted, the state-run insurer has logged only 473 help calls to the Department of Financial Services consumer line.

That compares to more than 6,000 in 2004.

“We’re pleased with that change and think it is due to improvements from last year,” Glover said.

For some hurricane victims, the success exists only on paper. Complaints about Citizens persist, even from last year’s storms.

Port Richey resident Barb Polsky, still battling Citizens over Hurricane Frances damage from 14 months ago, challenges her insurer’s assertion it has closed 99 percent of 2004 claims, along with state officials’ willingness to accept such statements.

Unable to afford repairs, her walls have rotted and the mold is so severe the 63-year-old woman is afraid to turn on her heat or air systems. Because adjusters have offered Polsky a partial check, her insurer can declare the claim as “closed.”

CFO Tom Gallagher and the Florida Cabinet in October 2004 ordered insurance companies to file affidavits attesting they had attempted to close all claims well before the end of that year. While state regulators have fined numerous insurers for missing the filing deadline, they have yet to sanction any company, including Citizens, for failing to promptly close claims.

“I am very angry at Mr. Gallagher. I had a lot of faith and trust in him when they issued orders, and none of it was done as far as I can tell,” Polsky said.

Almost three-fourths of the calls to the Department of Financial Services involve delays in handling claims, similar to the adjusting problems consumers voiced last year.

Atlantic Preferred, which took out another 10,500 policies from Citizens after the 2004 hurricanes, and its sister company, Florida Preferred, combined have 1,089 complaint files on record for 2005. Both are members of the Tampa-based Poe Financial Group. Poe officials, including CEO James Wurdeman, did not return calls.

Other takeout companies, including a new insurer called Gulfstream, dominate the DFS call list.

Citizens records show the Sarasota-based Gulfstream, despite being fourth in complaints, assumed another 2,530 policies from the state-run insurer this fall.

Glover said Citizens has no responsibility to check customer service when it gives policies to those companies — its primary legislative mandate is to spin off business when and where it can.

All, including Citizens, handle catastrophes similarly, relying on independent contractors to adjust claims.

Citizens has asked the Legislature to require private insurance companies, who underwrite non-hurricane risks for about 400,000 coastal residents, to take over responsibility for closing hurricane-related claims, too.

The Florida Association of Insurance Agents made a similar proposal last month to the Legislature’s Task Force on Long-Term Solutions for Florida’s Hurricane Insurance Market.

The task force, which meets Wednesday in Pensacola, is to make suggestions for change to the Legislature before the 2006 session.

“We’re still relying on out-sourced adjusters,” Glover said. “We still can’t produce the same level of service a State Farm or Allstate can.”

If you have an insurance complaint, call the Department of Financial Services at 1-800-342-2762


Here’s how Florida insurance companies stack up in complaint calls from the 2005 hurricane season:

Atlantic Preferred* 791
Citizens Property Insurance 473
Florida Preferred 298
Gulfstream Property and Casualty* 141
Federated National* 90
Allstate 88
State Farm 75
Universal Property and Casualty* 45
Argus Fire 40
United Property and Casualty* 3

* denotes Citizens Property Insurance takeout companies.
Source: Florida Department of Financial Services