Senate prepares for ‘assignment of benefits' insurance fight

By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Senate committee plunged again Tuesday into a debate about the controversial insurance practice known as “assignment of benefits,” with the chairman vowing to resolve the issue after unsuccessful attempts in past years.

“We’ve got to own this issue once and for all,” Senate Banking and Insurance Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said.

But with the issue pitting groups such as insurance companies and plaintiffs’ attorneys --- and with the key focus likely to be attorney fees --- expect a noisy fight over the next few months.

Assignment of benefits is a decades-old practice that involves insurance customers signing over claims to contractors, who do work and ultimately pursue payment from insurers. The issue has become controversial in recent years amid allegations by insurers that the system has become rife with fraud and litigation, driving up consumers’ insurance premiums.

Much of the focus has been on water-damage claims in South Florida for such things as busted pipes but also has extended to windshield-damage claims and now is spilling into the recovery in the Panhandle from Hurricane Michael.

State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who is from hard-hit Panama City, went before the committee Tuesday and implored lawmakers to address the so-called AOB issue. Patronis, whose office helps oversee the insurance industry, said he hasn’t limited his position to addressing attorney fees.

“I’ve had a call to action with the (insurance) carriers and I said, ‘Look, just do your job. As long as you are doing your job and you are fighting to make sure that our consumers are taken care of, then it makes it a lot easier to find where the bad actors exist,’ ” Patronis said, while discussing Hurricane Michael claims.

Broxson’s committee hosted speakers including Patronis, state Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and Citizens Property Insurance Corp. President and CEO Barry Gilway. Other speakers were former Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell, who represents an insurance-industry group called the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, and Orlando attorney Lee Jacobson, who represents the Florida Justice Association trial attorneys group.

Altmaier and Citizens officials have pointed to a spike in litigation about assignment of benefits for increased property-insurance rates. The Citizens Property Insurance Board last month, for example, approved a plan that would raise residential insurance rates by an average of 8.2 percent starting in September for customers of the state-backed insurer.

With the annual legislative session beginning March 5, the insurance industry and its supporters are focused on trying to limit attorney fees in AOB disputes. Broxson has filed a bill (SB 122) focused on fees, and Altmaier also backs taking action on the issue, telling the committee that litigation has “exploded” in recent years.

Bell acknowledged a “habitual battle between insurance companies and attorneys,” but he said the AOB debate involves a “significant problem that’s being caused by attorneys.”

But opponents of attorney-fee changes say assignment of benefits and the possibility of litigation help make sure insurers properly take care of claims.

“The assignment of benefits is the most mischaracterized, consumer-friendly tool that I’ve heard,” Jacobson said. “It’s a contract between two willing parties. It’s between the policyholder and his, her or its chosen vendor. They aren’t forced to sign this.”

News Service of Florida