Major reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program likely must wait until next year, says one of the senators seeking to protect homeowners from the potential for rising flood insurance premiums and the alleged systematic underpayment of claims.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said there is not enough support for the NFIP reforms now being endorsed by him, fellow Louisiana Republican John Kennedy and several Democrats from flood-prone eastern seaboard states, including Florida, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.
“Some of our reforms are really powerful reforms. And I’ve just found that when you are really changing things, it sometimes takes longer for folks to really get used to the idea,” Cassidy told WWL-TV. “People just need to get there, and I’m not sure that people on either end of the spectrum are there yet.”
That reality began to sink in before the August recess, when the Senate Banking Committee repeatedly failed to take up its own bill to reauthorize the massive federal flood insurance program. The bill offered by the chairman of that committee, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, contained few of the reforms suggested by Cassidy and focused in large part on shifting money away from disaster relief to fighting Western wildfires.
Critics said that was a “poison pill” intentionally inserted to make sure the bill doesn’t pass.
FEMA’s flood insurance program expires Sept. 30 and is likely to get a short-term renewal with no changes, just to keep it functioning until the end of the year or through March at the latest, Cassidy said.
“If it turns out we have to fight a battle over wildfires, we will, but I’m hoping not,” Cassidy said.
The program is critical in Louisiana, but it also has major problems after a string of expensive payouts starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It’s $25 billion in debt and relies almost entirely on premiums paid by homeowners in a few coastal states, but thousands of policyholders since 2012’s Hurricane Sandy have complained that it pays too little to cover the true cost of repairs.
Cassidy’s bill with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., proposes opening the market to private insurance, expanding funding for risk assessments and flood-prevention projects and cracking down on engineering firms and other insurance company attorneys and consultants who commit fraud to limit claims payments.
A New York engineering firm, HiRise Engineering, was convicted in state court after altering reports to deny Hurricane Sandy flood claims. It was disbarred from the NFIP, but a federal judge determined it was immune from civil fraud claims because it was acting as an agent of a government program.
Cassidy’s bill proposes stripping insurance companies and their consultants of that immunity, but longtime insurance company defense lawyer Gerald Nielsen of Metairie urged the industry to oppose Cassidy’s legislation, complaining at an industry conference in May that it would lead to a rash of frivolous fraud claims.
“When engineering firms have been found guilty of criminal behavior, there has to be a remedy that protects the person who has been defrauded,” Cassidy said.
U.S. Forensic, an engineering firm that’s also from Metairie, was accused of fraud by the former head of NFIP for how it edited its engineers’ reports, but it continues to handle claims in Louisiana and elsewhere and can’t be disbarred because it wasn’t found guilty of a crime. A bill offered by Kennedy and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would change that.
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