State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called Monday on federal authorities to enact reforms increasing the oversight and transparency of the National Flood Insurance Program to ensure homeowners are treated fairly when filing claims.
Schneiderman’s report, entitled “Murky Waters,” called out the flood insurance program for using technical language that confuses people about what is covered, not providing access to key documents and not requiring engineers to be certified or trained — all leading to what it called delays, increased costs, erroneous findings and improper payments.
In the report, Schneiderman recommended the agency set standard fees for engineering services, give policyholders access to all documents created during the claims process, better explain what a policy covers and create a national certification process for engineers who evaluate structural damage.
“When the next major storm hits, it’s crucial that families know exactly what kind of damage is covered by insurance and that their claims are being handled professionally and reliably,” he said in a news release.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency underwrites flood insurance but hires private companies to execute policies and adjust claims. Over the past two years the agency has replaced top leadership, made it easier to implement policy changes and added a layer of oversight so that engineering reports are reviewed and fees are examined, FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
“We share the concerns of the attorney general and members of Congress about improving the program,” he said, referring to Schneiderman’s report.
Changes made thus far, Lemaitre said, were to send a message to insurers they must “handle claims transparently and fairly.”
Long Beach attorney Denis G. Kelly has represented hundreds of residents fighting their insurance settlements. Fraud and a lack of understanding of policies is a systemic problem with the program, he said.
“They write policies that are virtually illegible,” Kelly said. “Do they do it intentionally? Absolutely . . . They’re not looking at the homeowner. They’re looking at the money and the statistics.”
Schneiderman released the report on the same day he announced a 50-count indictment charging HiRise Engineering of Uniondale and former employee Matthew Pappalardo with forgery in connection with falsified flood insurance damage reports. The grand jury indictment also charges Pappalardo with practicing engineering without a license.
Attorneys for thousands of Sandy victims said the altered damage reports reduced insurance payouts for clients. In December, Schneiderman’s office launched a criminal investigation and in February raided HiRise’s office. By March, United States senators from New York and New Jersey were calling for hearings and fair compensation for victims.
“This prosecution by the Attorney General sends a powerful message to all would-be wrongdoers that defrauding disaster victims will not be tolerated,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “We will continue our work to hold accountable all those who did wrong by Sandy victims and to make sure those families are fully compensated for the damage they suffered.”
- Better explain what is covered and what is excluded from flood insurance.
- Provide policyholders with all claim documents.
- Create a national certification process for engineers doing structural damage assessments.
- Standardize engineering fees.