Where are the insurance checks for Hurricane Michael? | Editorial

A year after Hurricane Michael, Florida needs to press insurers on settling hurricane claims.
Mexico Beach, one year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Michael.  DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times Douglas R. Clifford  |  Tampa Bay Times
Mexico Beach, one year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times
Published October 9

A year ago, residents of the Florida Panhandle endured the terror of Hurricane Michael making landfall near Mexico Beach. Yet thousands are still struggling to recover, with residents blaming insurance companies for dragging their feet and offering low-ball estimates to settle their claims. Families and businesses should not be in limbo this long, and the state needs to push insurers to resolve all outstanding claims promptly.

Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense rightly used his high profile last week to crank up the pressure on the insurance companies. The Panama City Republican rode out the Category 5 hurricane at his home, and he has experienced first-hand the frustration that thousands of others have had with their insurers, whom Bense called the “No. 1 obstacle” to the reconstruction effort. “I’m on my seventh adjuster for my home. Seventh adjuster!” he declared at a news conference for Rebuild 850, an organization launched to shepherd ongoing support for the multi-billion dollar recovery.

Bense offered the human dimension to the nagging backlog of unsettled claims. As of last month, as the Tampa Bay Times’ Lawrence Mower reported, more than 18,000 claims - about 12 percent of the total from the storm - were still open, despite a law requiring insurers to pay claims within 90 days. That requirement, though, has so many loopholes that insurers could take months to even provide an estimate. “Insurance companies, just frankly, try to beat you down,” Bense said.

Bense’s comments stand in contrast to the rosier picture that state regulators and some lawmakers have painted. In a presentation to the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee last month, state Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier mostly defended the insurers, saying he hadn’t seen “even an instance” of a company violating the law. Really? The session was so complimentary to the insurance industry that Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, walked away in disgust. Last week, however, Altmaier said he heard the frustration from Bense and others, and that “there is clearly more going on with claims handling that needs further investigation."

While the insurance commissioner is appointed by the governor and Cabinet, the agency is housed within the Department of Financial Services, which is overseen by the state’s chief financial officer, Jimmy Patronis. As a Panhandle native, businessman and former legislator, Patronis should be especially sensitive to the plight that Hurricane Michael survivors are facing. In a statement in August, following a call with insurance company executives, Patronis pointed to the outstanding claims from Michael. “This is unacceptable,” he said. If it was unacceptable then, it seems inexcusable now.

Insurance companies are great at collecting their premiums. As former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate noted, getting claims paid quickly is key to rebuilding lives, livelihoods and a community’s tax base. Floridians tolerate hurricanes as part of the bargain for living in paradise. But something’s terribly wrong when the 2019 hurricane season is nearly over and the losses from a devastating 2018 hurricane still aren’t covered. When will the state ride to the rescue of thousands of Floridians who can’t wait any longer to put their lives back together?

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.