Citizens gets 1,300-plus Debby claims, mostly from Hillsborough
In the time it took the new Citizens Property Insurance CEO to brief Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on early claims from Tropical Storm Debby, the growing number of claims had to be revised. Debby dumped up to 2 feet of rain in some areas Monday across a large part of north Florida. At the start of Tuesday's meeting, Barry Gilway reported the state-backed Citizens had received 1,351 claims. By the time it ended there were 200 more. "This is just the starting point," Gilway said. "This is within two days. It could well be just a drop in the bucket." Gilway had been on the job for less than a week when the summer's first big tropical storm blew into Florida out of the Gulf of Mexico.Eighty percent of the early claims claim came from Citizens' policyholders in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties in the greater Tampa Bay region on Florida's west coast. Most were from wind damage and leaky roofs. Scott was called out of the meeting briefly to take a call from President Barack Obama, who offered condolences and federal assistance for damage done to the state. Gilway's challenge is to pare the Citizens client list by at least half from its present total of more than 1.4 million customers. The total includes about 450,000 coastal accounts. He is in complete agreement with Scott's goal to return Citizens to its intended status as an insurer of last resort. "Clearly there needs to be some assurance … that the game won't be changed on them (private insurers) if they commit capital to the marketplace," Gilway said. He added that he looks forward to dealing with lawmakers. "Dealing with politicians at this magnitude is new," Gilway said afterward. "I have experience in the legislative arena as it relates to primarily rates and regulation, but my exposure is principally to regulators rather than legislators. Gilway said Citizens, which now has nearly one fourth of the property insurance market in the state, will have to increase rates and perhaps downgrade any of the bells and whistles in its coverage to attract private insurers to Florida. "They have to generate a return," Gilway said. "Ultimately, that has to be addressed." The state-backed insurer has struggled to downsize to a point where it can be a true insurer of last resort without at the same time carrying an unaffordable risk to its customers. If Citizens were unable to pay all claims in the aftermath of a catastrophic hurricane, its policyholders would be assessed, possibly for several years. Scott has been particularly anxious to find a way to ensure the company's solvency while eliminating the risk to its customers. Gilway supports the glide path already in place on increasing Citizens' rates, but not the current cap. "You don't there with that 10 percent cap," he said. "We're not getting 10 percent. Gilway, who spent 42 years in the private side of the insurance industry, was chosen at Citizens' new CEO on June 13 and began work just five days later. The state's chief regulator, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, told Scott and the Cabinet that Florida property insurers are well positioned financially to handle a significant storm season.