Assignment of benefits: A growing concernBy Kevin Poll | February 21, 2018
Evaluating claims properly and determining the appropriate amount of a loss are crucial for insurance companies, especially when trying to offer competitive premiums to customers and maintain profitable financial results.
Factors that affect profitability
In the business of insurance, many factors—some that can’t be controlled—affect financial profitability. Predictive analytics and more refined modeling are helping insurers reduce uncertainty, but even the best of models have their limitations.
Further, many variables can’t be predicted but could have significant financial impact on the bottom line. One of those variables—the potential for the benefits of an insurance policy being assigned post-loss to predatory adjusters—has been a hot topic, particularly in those states where laws and regulations currently prevent insurance companies from being able to mitigate the problem.
What is assignment of benefits?
Typically, an insurance policy has a loss payment provision that advises the policyholder that any payment for a first-party loss will be paid directly to the insured unless another party is legally entitled to collect payment. However, a common practice by consumers after a loss is to have the contractor that will be making the repairs to the damaged property work directly with the insurance company for payment.
Some insurance providers have simplified this process by developing a network of trusted contractors that are allowed to inspect claims on their behalf. This creates a consumer-friendly environment where the insured, for the most part, is removed from the claims settlement process. However, consumers generally are free to make other choices, so if they decide on a contractor not in that network, the insurer most likely will work with the entity selected by the insured.
When a contractor, who is not in an insurance provider’s network, is chosen, the insured has two options: either receive payment from the insurance company and then work directly with the contractor or allow the contractor to work directly with the insurance company regarding repairs and payment. Insurance companies would likely prefer the first option because they can then more closely monitor the claims process. While the second option may be less desirable to the insurance company, certain states, like Florida, have laws in place that actually prevent the carrier from disallowing it.
What are the concerns with assignment of benefits?
Transferring the benefits of a policy to a third party, such as a contractor, does create a better customer experience; however, insurers generally lose a bit of control managing the claims process when working directly with the third party.
Several states (especially Florida as discussed below) have seen an influx in predatory public adjusters and contractors that seek out consumers who may potentially have a loss covered by their homeowners policy. These adjusters (that may also serve as the contractor making the repairs to the home) will have the consumer sign a transfer of benefits to them almost immediately after suffering the loss, and then they will work directly with the insurance company to complete the claims process.
One issue that arises (and often the consumer is unaware of this) is that the adjuster/contractor could be inflating the actual cost of the claim by reporting damage that may not actually have occurred. Additionally, the claim may not be reported to the insurance company until the repairs have already been completed so the insurance company has not had an opportunity to inspect the damage. Such tactics can result in additional profits for the adjuster/contractor, which translates to inflated severity and rising premiums for the consumer.
This issue may be particularly problematic in Florida, where insurance carriers may not be aware of potential losses until they’re served with a lawsuit for expenses incurred by the contractor that completed the repairs. In fact, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (FLOIR) released results from a study it conducted showing that the number of lawsuits attributed to assignment of benefits (AOB) increased from 408 in 2000 to more than 28,000 in 2016. Further, the average severity for claims where there is an AOB is about 85 percent more than those claims without an AOB.
How has this issue escalated?
Several factors have contributed to the growing problem of assignment of benefits in Florida; however, a combination of case law and legislation, which has made it difficult for insurance companies to mitigate claim costs and potential fraud, may be the most impactful.
In the 1917 landmark case of West Florida Grocery Co. v. Teutonia Fire Ins. Co., 77 So. 209, 210-, the state Supreme Court rendered a decision holding that the insured was able to assign the benefits of the policy following a loss directly to a third party without the written consent of the insurance provider. The precedent established by this 100-year-old case continues to make it very difficult for an insurance company to prohibit the assignment of benefits in Florida.
In addition to this case, Florida Statute §627.428 governing payment of attorneys’ fees related to insurance practices requires that insurance companies pay legal fees to third parties successfully suing to obtain payment for their services even if the ruling from the court places the amount of the claim only $1 above the insurance company’s offer in settlement. As a result, this statute incentivizes contractors to sue insurance companies for reimbursement, because the likelihood that they’ll have to pay their own legal fees for the case is very slim.
As reported by The Sun Sentinel earlier this year, consumers in southern Florida could expect to see rate increases averaging 5-15% as a result of claims abuse. Additionally, if it can be assumed that a significant number of the lawsuits complied in the FLOIR study referenced above were initiated by public adjusters and contractors seeking to be unjustly compensated, it could be suggested that this predatory behavior is factoring into these rate increases.
Despite this potential correlation, the legislature has yet to make changes to existing laws. While some members of Florida’s legislature favor the existing legislation, others are advocating for consumers and supporting legislation that would eliminate the abuse. Although remedial legislation did fail in 2017, some members have said they’re hopeful to get legislation passed in 2018.
How is ISO responding?
ISO has been reviewing policy language to determine the best course of action for responding to the growing crisis, especially in Florida. While prohibiting assignment of benefits post-loss altogether is not allowed by state law, several policy provisions can be modified to introduce parameters on how the benefits of the policy can be assigned to a third party. ISO is finalizing these changes and hopes to file in the first quarter of 2018 so that member companies can address this concern with or without any future changes to Florida law.