Florida’s Public Option



As Congress debates the merits of the “public option” for health insurance, we might look at Florida for some experience, because Florida has had a public option for years, not for health insurance but for property insurance.

After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992 some Floridians were having difficulty purchasing homeowners’ insurance. (The reason: rates are regulated, and at the regulated rates some properties are too great a risk.) So, the state government formed Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, which is owned and operated by the State of Florida.

As originally envisioned, Citizens would charge rates above those charged by private insurers, to make Citizens the insurer of last resort. Nevertheless, Citizens found plenty of customers.

After two bad hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 property insurance rates in Florida rose, and in his campaign for the office, current Governor Charlie Crist promised voters that if elected he would see that their property insurance bills “dropped like a rock.”

One tactic he used was to change Citizens’ rate structure so it was competitive with private insurers. His idea, like President Obama’s idea with health insurance, is that with a public option, private insurers would have to keep their rates in line or risk losing customers to the government insurer.

That’s what’s happened in Florida. Today about 30% of homeowners’ policies are written by Citizens, which is the largest property insurer in the state. It’s about to get bigger too. The largest private insurer, State Farm, had a rate request rejected last year, and now is pulling out of the state altogether (for property insurance; they’ll still insure your car). As the largest private insurer pulls out over a three-year period (that period negotiated with the state), Citizens will get an even larger share of Florida’s property insurance.

Everybody in Florida knows Citizens is a fiscal time bomb. Already, every Florida insurance policy (on homes, boats, cars, etc.) pays a surcharge that goes to Citizens, but Citizens still doesn’t have sufficient reserves to weather a major hurricane. When one comes, Florida taxpayers will be on the hook for the bill.

The legislature knows this, and actually passed a bill last year that would have done a great deal to solve the problem by partially deregulating rates private insurers could charge. State Farm would have stayed in Florida had that bill taken effect, but it was vetoed by the Governor. The public option is displacing private insurance.

In Florida, the public option has meant a substantial socialization of insurance, subsidization of the public option by those who take a private option, and the creation of a fiscally-unsound public insurance company despite the subsidy. Now, we have an opportunity to do the same thing at the national level with health insurance. The results have not been good in Florida, and everyone in Florida knows it. Why would it be any different at the national level?

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