Insurer Citizens shrinks past historic milestone: below 500,000

Hurricane_Fran_sept_1996Florida’s state-run insurer reached a milestone, officials said Wednesday — fewer than 500,000 policies for the first time since its 2002 creation.

Make it 484,788 policies for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. as of this week, less than a third of its 1.5 million-customer size just a few years ago. About one in 10 of its customers is in Palm Beach County.

“This marks an important milestone and the culmination of efforts from all Citizens’ stakeholders,” said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Citizens board of governors, in a statement. “Much of the credit needs to go to the private property insurance market, which under the watchful eye of the Office of Insurance Regulation has grown strong over the past several years. State leaders also need to take a bow.”

Company officials cited “a reinvigorated private insurance market, affordable reinsurance and favorable weather” — including a decade with no hurricane making landfall in Florida.

The charmed streak of non-catastrophic weather has left Florida’s reconstituted private insurance market largely untested.

Within the last 18 months, a group representing big insurers saw “troubling questions about the financial strength” of small Florida-based companies — some only a few years or months old — who have been gobbling up Citizens customers in record-breaking numbers. Most customers leave Citizens through state-regulated letters that automatically switch them to a private insurer unless they take action to stay.

Eleven of 29 companies that took policies out of Citizens became insolvent, were ordered to stop writing business, or were taken over by other companies between 2003 and 2009, noted Michael Carlson, executive director of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida. The group’s charter members include State Farm, Allstate and Progressive.

But on Wednesday, Citizens officials cited “stress tests” run by state regulators last year suggesting private insurers can handle the challenge.

“These results were accomplished by dedicated Citizens staff who worked closely with 23 companies on the depopulation program and 14 companies on the Clearinghouse program over the past few years,” said Citizens president Barry Gilway. “These results exceed all expectations and I thank our Board of Governors for their strong support.”

Total risk exposure at Citizens has shrunk to $144 billion, down from a high or more than $500 billion.

The Citizens policy numbers suggest it is no longer the state’s biggest property insurer. Official state counts lag a bit — they are available only through the third quarter of 2015 in a public database — but they show Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. of Fort Lauderdale  with 544,681 customers at last check.

A group representing many Florida-based insurers, the Florida Property & Casualty Association, applauded the development.

“Citizens was created to make home insurance available in Florida’s hurricane-prone regions after the national companies retreated from writing home insurance in the state,” executive director William Stander said. “Citizens was designed to be the insurance company of last resort, but quickly grew out of control.

“Since then, our state’s insurance market has become much healthier, more competitive and homegrown with 67 Florida-based companies writing 72 percent of all homes. Much of the credit can be given to these entrepreneurs and (Florida Insurance) Commissioner (Kevin) McCarty for encouraging the depopulation efforts and formation of new, financially secure Florida-based insurance companies.”

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