TALLAHASSEE – A bill in the state senate right now could have implications on the wallets of insured Floridians. An assignment of benefits reform bill passed the Florida House April 19 and now awaits vote in the Senate.
The bill was designed to close what many call a loophole allowing vendors in the state to charge insurance companies an inflated amount for repairs, based on the idea that if the insurance company contests the amount in court – they would still get paid. Currently, if costs are contested in court and the judgment is in favor of the vendor for any amount, the insurance company is required to pay the vendor’s attorney fees.
These cases can be time consuming, with attorney fees as high as $30,000 for a $10,000 dispute. Advocates of reform say this litigation costs the courts time, and ends up costing insured Floridians even more when insurance companies’ costs get passed down to the consumer.
“If this bill passes, I think it will hold insurance rates, keep them from going up. They may go up for other reasons, but it would keep them from continuing to go up because of the problems we’ve experienced,” Cam Fentriss, legal counsel for the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors’ Association, said in an interview with the Florida Record. “If this bill passes, it will have a positive effect on the bank accounts of consumers.”
The bill, which passed 91-26 in the House, would regulate the payment of those attorney fees.
According to language in House Bill 1421, if the insurance company was ordered to pay at least 50 percent of the disputed amount, it would also be responsible for the individual’s attorney fees. If the judgment falls between 25 and 50 percent of the disputed amount, each party would pay their own attorney fees. Should the judgment fall below 25 percent of the disputed amount, the individual would be responsible for the insurance company’s attorney fees.
The bill, introduced by Representatives James Grant (R-District 64) and Rene Plasencia (R-District 49), is now backed by many of the state’s largest commerce, contractors and insurance groups.
“We praise Representatives Grant and Plasencia, as well as House leadership, for making AOB reform a priority and sending a bill with commonsense reforms to the Senate,” Logan McFaddin, regional manager of state government relations for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said in a statement. “With another hurricane season shortly upon us, we are hopeful in the final days of session the Senate will pass this good legislation that protects hardworking Floridians.”
The Florida Consumer Protection Coalition, too, is behind this bill. Edie Ousley, vice president of public affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said though she’s encouraged by the House’s movement on 1421, its hope now rests in the commonsense approach of the Senate.
“We remain hopeful that the Florida Senate will choose to side with Floridians instead of anti-consumer special interests and pass consumer protections from AOB fraud and abuse,” Ousley told the Florida Record.
According to Ousley, lawmakers have been hearing testimony about the growth of assignment of benefits fraud and abuse for the last five years, in addition to receiving data about how Floridians have and continue to see their homeowners’ insurance rise.
Without legislation, proponents of AOB reform say insured Floridians can plan on spending even more money on insurance in the coming years.
“Skyrocketing litigation costs are a major problem and if we go another legislative session without a solution this type of abuse will only get worse and insurance costs could continue to rise,” McFaddin told Florida Politics. “We have an opportunity to enact meaningful reform to keep homeownership affordable and attainable for many Floridians.”
One way consumers can act to protect themselves from this type of fraud, according to Fentriss, is to be weary of repair vendors who come knocking on your door after a storm.
“What we do not support is the overuse of AOB. We do not support going out there and looking for business and saying, 'Hey a storm came through; I think I can get your insurance company to pay for a new roof,'” Fentriss told the Florida Record. “If anybody comes and knocks on your door and says you need repairs, you need to worry about that.”
The currently scheduled deadline for the Senate vote is May 5.