Florida's next insurance session also eyes hurricane, toll relief

Leaders set aside up to 5 days to enact what they vowed would be 'systemic reform'
Posted at 7:53 PM, Dec 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-06 19:53:38-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As Florida's next special session gets closer — now under a week away — new details were released Tuesday about what lawmakers want to accomplish. Their main focus remains the state's crumbling property insurance market, but hurricane and toll relief are coming as well.

In Tuesday's joint proclamation, House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo laid out plans for next week's gavel drop. The leaders set aside up to five days to enact what they vowed would be "systemic reform."

Cutting litigation costs topped the list. That could mean restricting one-way attorney fees, which insurers have said incentivizes frivolous lawsuits and drives up costs. Boosting access to reinsurance is another goal, although that sounded like a temporary measure that would fade out as the market becomes more stable.

The other big focus, limiting "assignment of benefits" or "AOB." They give third parties, like roofers, the power to seek direct payment from insurers but also file lawsuits. They're another contributor to Florida's litigation glut, critics believe, as the state makes up around 8% of claims nationally but about 80% of claims lawsuits.

"I thought the special session in May made some significant accomplishments, but we didn't go far enough," Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis said.

Patronis, a Republican, was happy with the initial plan laid out by leaders. Tamping down costly court battles, he thought, would translate to more private insurers, more competition, lower costs, and fewer using the state-backed insurer of last resort — Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. At last check, Citizens had swollen to more than 1.1 million policies.

"Look, in my opinion, there's not a single good thing that an AOB does for anybody other than the health insurance industry," Patronis said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was also supportive of the ideas. In a statement, his office said the Republican governor was "grateful that the Florida legislature has responded to his October call for a special session to reduce the cost of property insurance for Floridians."

"Specifically on property insurance," EOG Press Secretary Bryan Griffin said. "The governor expects the Legislature to rein in the costs of excessive litigation and ensure the property insurance market in Florida is both attractive to insurers and more competitive for consumers."

Democrats were cooler on the proposed tort reform. Their leaders warned going too far could be bad for consumers.

"You do run the risk of cutting off consumer's access to the courts," House Minority Leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said. "That's one of the tools that they have with respect to holding insurance companies accountable."

During an afternoon press conference, Driskell and her colleagues pushed for more dramatic and immediate fixes. Among them, making the position of Florida Insurance Commissioner an elected post and rate freezes. Neither was likely to fly with the Legislature's GOP supermajorities.

Beyond insurance, Tuesday's proclamation also aimed to help Hurricane Ian and Nicole victims with tax relief and other financial aid. The state's emergency management division got support as well. Lawmakers included a plan to bolster relief efforts with "additional mechanisms."

The creation of a toll credit program for Florida's frequent commuters was on the docket, too. It was something the governor had promised weeks back but looked to be coming sooner than expected.

The specifics of what lawmakers are planning remain unknown. As of Tuesday evening, bill language for next week's policies had yet to be filed. That critical update may not come until late this week or early next.