TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With Hurricane Michael causing massive damage in Northwest Florida, a new front has opened in the battle over the controversial insurance practice known as “assignment of benefits.”
Groups on both sides of the long-running debate are trying to sway residents grappling with the need to make what, in many cases, are costly home repairs.
Assignment of benefits, or AOB as it is widely known, involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, who ultimately pursue payments from insurance companies for repairs. The insurance industry and business groups have unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature in recent years to change the assignment-of-benefits process, arguing that it leads to fraud, litigation and increased costs.
Pointing to “dangers” of signing over benefits after Hurricane Michael, an organization known as the Consumer Protection Coalition said Wednesday it is starting a public-service announcement campaign in Panama City and Tallahassee advising residents to contact their insurance agents before signing any insurance-related documents. The coalition includes major business and insurance groups.
“The Consumer Protection Coalition is committed to helping residents get through the difficulty of putting their lives back together,’’ Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which leads the coalition, said in a prepared statement. “Consumers need all the information they can get to help navigate making repairs to their homes and vehicles, and we’re working hard to provide resources to help prevent Floridians from becoming victims of AOB scams.”
But restoration contractors and plaintiffs’ attorneys contend that assignment of benefits can help homeowners quickly hire contractors to repair damage and force insurers to properly pay claims.
The Restoration Association of Florida, an industry group, issued a news release Wednesday pushing back against efforts by business and insurance groups to dissuade residents from using assignment of benefits.
“We are extremely concerned about multiple advisories warning homeowners not to sign any contracts containing assignment of benefits language,” Amanda Prater, a spokeswoman for the association, said in a prepared statement. “The assignment of benefit language is perfectly legal and is an extremely common insurance practice. Many homeowners we are meeting with understandably do not have the money to pay out of pocket for emergency services such as water dry out, mold, tree service, and roof repairs, etc. The AOB language is there to allow covered repairs to be made to one’s property immediately --- and the contractors will bill the homeowner’s insurance company directly.”
Much of the debate in recent years about assignment of benefits has focused on water-damage claims in South Florida. Those claims often have involved such things as busted pipes, not storm damage.
But amid continuing legal and political fights about the practice, it appears attention also will turn to what will be months of repairs and insurance claims in Northwest Florida.
On a hurricane page on its website, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. tells residents to call the state-backed insurer before signing over benefits.
“Some contractors will ask you to sign your benefits over to them before starting emergency repairs. This is called assignment of benefits,” the Citizens website says. “Do not sign over your insurance benefits to anyone. Signing over your benefits can cause an increase in costs for which you could be left on the hook.”
The Restoration Association of Florida, meanwhile, said it is encouraging policyholders to contact the association if they have questions about assignment-of-benefits contracts.
“In a crisis such as this, Floridians should be doing all we can to encourage and help homeowners get their lives back to normal as soon as possible,” Prater said. “We recognize there may be certain groups trying to take advantage of the current situation and we would strongly encourage homeowners to read all contracts carefully to ensure they are only agreeing to an assignment of benefits for a limited scope of services that are being provided by that specific contractor.”