CONSUMER ADVOCATE..Right Person, Right Time!

It’s a little late to comment on the appointment of Robin Westcott to the post of Insurance Consumer Advocate, but…I thought I could share some historical perspective, point out the hypocrisy of those who criticize the appointment and congratulate Ms. Westcott all at the same time. 

By all accounts, certainly by her reputation and qualifications, Westcott will bring both professionalism and a much needed wider view to the post. Most of what I know about her past, and thus future, is either anecdotal or garnered from recent press accounts; most of which were complimentary, a few not so much.

As expected, anytime she demonstrated balance or a greater focus on assessments and carrier solvency than rate suppression; other so called consumer advocates expressed chagrin. Same with the media. The Sarasota Herald Tribune did a masterful hatchet job on her stint as a division director in charge of property and casualty rates; pointing to company failures without even a mention of the word “scapegoat”. Their point was she allowed companies to continue operating when they should’ve been shut down; like consumer groups and the media generally, the paper failed to acknowledge any role the  demagoguery of rate requests might play in such matters.

Sean Shaw, the former ICA and now staunch defender of Pubic Adjusters with the Merlin Law Group, seems to be reserving judgment on the appointment. I respect Sean Shaw very much.  We’ve worked together on numerous issues and panels. I believe he knows being the consumer advocate is a high-wire act where you tilt between assessments and premiums to avoid falling.   I’m sure he would disagree but, I believe he may have often leaned to defend the latter at the expense of those paying the former.  That’s, perhaps, why things must change in the future and may already be.

Note that the consumer advocates office, is the first to propose excluding sinkhole premiums from Citizen’ glide path.  Absolutely true; the very provision in SB-408 being railed against by Senator Mike Fasano, consumer groups, Sean Shaw, Bill Newton, Ginny Stevans and others, is merely the legislature doing what was recommended by the ICA to OIR hearing officers.

The Herald Tribune tore through Westcott’s performance as a lawyer and division head with OIR, but barely mentions the fact that, for the first time anyone can remember, the ICA just testified that a carrier rate request of around 30% was too low and should be increased to something like 48%.  I presume the scant coverage by other outlets is because it proves how true consumer advocacy, especially by the state consumer advocate, is harder than just mere rate suppression.

At a recent rate hearing the ICA chastised the Hartford Insurance Company for attempting to limit sticker shock rate increases on those in sinkhole alley by spreading it to other territories. Where was the Herald Tribune on that one?  Where was Bill Newton? Where was Senator Mike Fasano?  Where was anyone who is now criticizing the sinkhole rate request of Citizens?

Also, the Herald Tribune, and other news outlets, have misstated a bit of history regarding the ICA’s birth.

Going back to a time when Democrats ruled Tallahassee a little known Republican member of the house from Coconut Grove would annually lead the minority party’s harassment of the then elected Democrat insurance commissioner by proposing a state consumer advocate to oversee his work.  To a cabinet level Democrat who was both state treasurer and insurance commissioner it was pure political grist. To the House Republican minority, it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

It was also great political theater for the Republican leading the charge, Tom Gallagher.  Later, after he was elected insurance commissioner, the new minority Democrats returned the favor saying a consumer advocate was needed to keep an eye on him instead.   Gallagher quickly ducked the slings and arrows by appointing his own consumer advocate to report direct to him and to operate under the purview of the OIR (DOI at the time). Later, cabinet reorganization put the ICA where it is today, housed within the DFS and appointed by the CFO.  Subsequent enactments increased funding, staffing and responsibilities but, it’s birth was pure unadulterated politics as usual.

Those days are gone; the days of Bill Nelson when the ICA would get fired for taking a broader, non-political longer term view. Now, more voters are beginning to notice the assessments on their auto policies.  The Tea Party is getting involved,  even testifying last year during senate hearings. Deficits are up, insolvencies are up and, due to past suppression, premiums are way, way up.  The ICA office  is looking more closely at the fairness, or lack thereof, of subsidies for wind and sinkholes.

It’s all these things that make the job of Insurance Consumer Advocate a lot more difficult than it ever used to be.  And…it’s all these things that might make Robin Westcott just the right person at just the right time.

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Comments

  1. Mr. Scott,

    Just to clarify for your records I have NEVER sided with Florida’s Consumer Advocate! In fact I have complained LOUDLY in the past how I feel this APPOINTED position often tends to air on the side of the insurance industry! Also to clarify “Where were they” when speaking of rate hearings. I HAVE been to rate hearings, testified several times in Tallahassee, brought hundreds of people to Tallahassee, and spoken with, written, and called not only members of the House and Senate, but the former Governor (the new one does not see consumers), and two former Insurance Consumer Advocates. I have ALL ALONG believed that what HAS happened to consumers WOULD happen. I fought against the the initial dropping of sinkhole policies and making it a “choice” as they say. What is going on in Tallahassee is disgusting and we are run by lobbyists and the insurance industry! All I can say is watch out because the people are waking up and so their time will soon be up too! We voted them in and I can guarantee we can vote them out!

    • Ginny, thanks for the comments and for reading my blog.

      As you suggested, I’ll update my records to reflect that.. you “never” agree with the consumer advocates office. Of course, I never said that you always agreed either and, for your records, please note: I don’t always agree with the insurance industry.

      My question on “where were they?” was…where were you in responding to Sean Shaw’s office when it advocated that Citizens sinkhole losses should not be part of the 10% cap on Citizens rates? All the legislature did was implement his (or rather, his offices) recommendation in order to benefit 80% of Citizens policyholders. Keep in mind that only 1 in 5 sinkhole alley policyholders buys this coverage from Citizens. Why do you want to pay for that? Why do you want the other policyholders of Citizens and the state to pay for that?

      Wouldn’t it be more consumer friendly to advocate that those few who want something, that a majority don’t want, pay for it themselves? I understand why a Public Adjuster or trial attorney might want people to buy sinkhole activity coverage really cheap, but…why would someone advocating for consumers want a huge majority to pay more so they could; especially when they are forced to pay it as an assessment on coverage they were forced to purchase by a lender?

      By the way, I agree with you on one point… like you, I knew this would happen to consumers too. But, it’s the result of previous administrations who found it easier to take from that majority in order to unjustly enrich a minority who wanted an “elective” coverage–and, of course, to curry favor with public adjusters enriched by the claim payments.

      You and I may also agree that people, as you said, are “waking up”. Last year’s legislation is testament that they now understand the unfairness of subsidizing vacations and mortgage payoffs with money paid to repair stucco cracks.

      Again, thanks for the comments.

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