WASHINGTON — FEMA officials on Monday announced new procedures for flood insurance policy holders to file appeals and internal steps to exert more control over the process following complaints that private contractors underpaid claims after superstorm Sandy.
The changes come amid lawmakers’ and homeowners’ continuing criticism of the way claims and appeals are handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program and the private insurance companies it contracts with to carry out its work.
“Fundamental changes need to take place in this program,” said Roy E. Wright, the flood insurance program administrator. He said he was rolling out “three elements” that would go into effect later this year in what he called “a long-term process.” Wright said they include:
A new appeal process is being put into place that will allow the policy holders to see their file, including the review, the analysis and the resolution of the claim. In addition, FEMA, not the insurance contractor, will make the final decision on the appeal.
A team of lawyers in the flood insurance program will be assigned to oversee each lawsuit filed by policy holders with denied appeals against the insurance contractors, to restrain lawyer fees paid by FEMA and to ensure that cases are settled or disposed properly.
And a procedural change to make it easier for the flood insurance program to drop problematic insurance contractors during annual contract negotiations, by shifting the agreements from a regulatory framework to agency policy. This change is subject to a 60-day period for public comment and regulatory review.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who pushed for those fixes in what he called a “broken program,” said, “Today’s news marks important steps, but demands continued pressure on FEMA to make more of the changes we have called for — changes that will rightfully place storm victims ahead of insurance companies in the aftermath of a disaster.”
The nearly 80 insurance companies participating in the flood insurance program “have always supported sound improvements” and “will continue to support program enhancements,” said a statement by Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.
But Michele Insinga, executive director of the nonprofit Adopt a House, which seeks to help homeowners and the recovery of the South Shore from damage caused by superstorm Sandy, greeted the announcement with skepticism.
“When I see it, I’ll believe it,” she said. “They are only doing what they were supposed to doing the whole time.”
Insinga also questioned the timing of Wright’s announcement. She said it came a day before Frontline and NPR are to air on PBS an expose of insurance company profiteering on superstorm Sandy and a day after Newsday reported FEMA dropped efforts to collect nearly $5.4 million in disaster recovery funds it believed were improperly paid.