State insurance commissioner talks to Malibu fire victims

California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner addresses a Malibu Town Hall to address fire victims’ concerns.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner attended a Town Hall meeting at Pepperdine University last Thursday to discuss community recovery from the recent fires, saying if there is any consensus to the process, it is that it’s only the beginning of a long, slow and complicated procedure.

Poizner assembled a panel of experts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Contractors State Licensing Board to tackle some of the thornier details that arise when residents file insurance claims after a fire.

Also present were Susan Nissman of County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office, Michael Harris of the California FAIR Plan and a representative from District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office, as well as spokesmen from the largest insurance companies, the Insurance Information Network and the Association of California Insurance Companies.

Speaking at the Elkins Auditorium and backed with reams of brochures titled “Residential Property Claims Guide” and “Don’t Get Burned After a Disaster,” Mayor Jeff Jennings opened the evening’s discussion by acknowledging the sometimes overwhelming task residents face in moving forward after losing homes to a disaster.

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“The trauma of a fire like this is only the first part of the process,” Jennings said. “When you look at your insurance policy, you realize you can’t deal with this alone. Get some help.”

“Twenty-one hundred families in Southern California lost their homes in the recent fires, with several dozen of them here in Malibu,” Poizner said. “Right after the October fire, we started to take action with survivor outreach, protection from scam artists, expediting insurance payments and mitigation techniques to help people get back on their feet.”

The three most important steps a fire survivor can take, Poizner said, is to file your claim immediately, get a complete copy of your insurance policy and be organized; instructions that were echoed by everyone in the hall.

Residents worried about receiving full value on losses

Most residents in attendance who had lost homes in the fires were concerned about the yawning gap between what they believed was the extent of their coverage and the amount their insurance companies told them to expect.

One woman was worried about mitigation issues with her rebuild.

“There are homes built in the ’40s and ’50s that need to be replaced and a new building code goes into effect in January,” she said. “Are we responsible for filling that gap?”

Deputy Insurance Commissioner Tony Cignarale said if code upgrades were not part of her coverage, she could apply for a low-interest SBA loan of up to $200,000.

Many were concerned that the true value of their homes and personal contents would not be properly paid. Poizner advised that everyone know the full details of the type of coverage they have, whether it is cash value for property, full or limited replacement costs for rebuilding or guaranteed full coverage.

One woman said, “I feel we’re underinsured and that the burden of proof is on us to show the real value of our house.”

“The responsibility for proper insurance is between the home owner and his insurance company,” Poizner said. “But if you have any complaint, there is no risk to call our office. We pay for mediators to resolve disputes and I have regulatory power to enforce consumer protection.”

Poizner and his panel agreed it is imperative for homeowners to determine their own scope of loss when presenting claims to their insurance companies.

“Make a comprehensive inventory of personal property. List damaged or destroyed items, gather receipts and photos and don’t discard anything until the insurance adjuster says it’s OK,” Poizner said.

Several panelists suggested homeowners prepare computer discs with photos or videos of all personal property both inside and outside of a home to keep at an office.

One resident voiced a frustration felt by many residents, “The scope of loss estimated by my insurance company doesn’t reflect the actual cost of replacing my property,” she said.

Others complained that insurance companies gave estimated rebuilding costs at $175 per-square-foot.

“This is a ridiculous figure,” one woman claimed. “We’re Malibu. I haven’t found a contractor who said he could do anything for less than $300 per-square-foot.”

“I’m looking at a 60 percent difference between what my insurance company is offering and the minimum bid I’ve received from contractors,” one man said.

Poizner promised to investigate the computer models insurance companies use to estimate rebuilding costs.

Another woman worried about the lack of coverage for loss of use under her California FAIR Plan policy.

“We can’t afford to pay a mortgage and rent a place,” she said.

She was assured that FEMA could help secure rental assistance.

“My job is to make sure you get every penny you deserve,” Poizner said. “But be proactive and get registered with governmental agencies.”

Beware of scam artists

Apparently, scam artists have been a particular problem, both as unqualified public insurance adjusters and unlicensed contractors.

“You absolutely must ask to see their pocket license and proof that they are bonded,” Cignarale said. “Any questions, call our office.”

Poizner and his deputies continued to emphasize the need for victims to contact their offices with any complaint or question.

“We will continue to hold these town halls and be available to you until everyone who needs it is helped,” Poizner said. “Our Hot Line is 1.800.927.HELP or go to www.insurance.ca.gov.”

Poizner also promised to speed up payments from insurance companies to survivors.

“We’ve had 33,000 claims in the past two months and I’ve authorized all insurance companies to bring in out-of-state claims adjusters,” he said. “Seven hundred fifty million dollars has already been paid out. We’ve partnered with CAL FIRE to disseminate mitigation techniques such as landscape clearance and debris removal.”

Debris removal was also high on several residents’ list of concerns. Cignarale encouraged them to “tag onto what the county’s doing. But get filed with FEMA and the SBA. FEMA’s application period is open till Jan. 9.”

Both FEMA and the SBA will have disaster recovery centers at the Malibu Public Library until Dec. 20.

Where to get help:

€ Community Assisting Recovery, Inc., or CARe, a nonprofit, volunteer organization, is holding a free meeting to discuss underinsurance issues on Jan. 12, 1 p.m. -4 p.m. at the Malibu Library. To schedule a free individual file review, call 888.216 8264 or go online to www.carehelp.org

€ California FAIR Plan: 800.339.4099; www.cfpnet.com

€ Free Home Inventory Guide: 800.927.HELP; www.insurance.ca.gov

€ Small Business Administration: 800.488.5323

€ FEMA: 800.621.FEMA; www.fema.gov

€ County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office: 818.880.9416

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