All posts by Lucian McMahon

WCRI releases 2019 workers compensation law compendium

This week, the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) published its latest edition of workers compensation laws in the U.S. and Canada, which includes regulations and benefit levels as of January 1, 2019.

Per WCRI:

In Canada and the United States, workers’ compensation is entirely under the control of sub-national legislative bodies and administrative agencies. The differences between jurisdictional laws and regulations can be subtle and this survey gives you the ability to understand those differences.

WCRI members can download the report here.

For the more casual readers out there, check out our page on workers compensation and how it works.

Commercial insurance, diseases and epidemics

In a previous article, we discussed how personal insurance policies address communicable diseases and epidemics. In this article, we’ll look at how commercial insurance policies handle these issues.

Between 1918 and 1919 the so-called Spanish influenza pandemic* killed at least 50 million people worldwide and infected about 500 million people – or about 1/3 of the entire world’s population at the time.

While the Spanish flu’s destructiveness has been an outlier over the last several decades, epidemics and pandemics on a smaller scale do still happen (avian flu, swine flu, Ebola, etc.).

How could disease outbreaks impact commercial property and general liability insurance?

[Content warning: wonky]

Continue reading Commercial insurance, diseases and epidemics

Personal insurance: diseases and epidemics

In this article, we discuss how personal insurance policies address communicable diseases and epidemics. In a later article, we’ll look at how commercial insurance policies address these issues.

Measles are back with a vengeance. It’s gotten so bad in one New York county that the local government tried to ban unvaccinated children from public spaces.

Little known fact to people outside the insurance world: many personal insurance policies address communicable diseases and epidemics. Let’s walk through some of them.

Homeowners liability insurance: probably not covered

If you crack open your handy HO-3 standard homeowners policy and flip to Section II – Liability Coverages, you’ll notice that the transmission of a communicable diseases that causes any bodily injury or property damage is not covered by the policy. What this basically means is that if you (the insured) cause someone to get hurt (i.e. sick) via a communicable disease, whether you knew you were sick or not, then the policy won’t cover you for any liability if you get sued.

So if someone without a measles vaccination throws a party and ends up getting several guests sick, that person’s homeowners policy probably won’t cover any liability arising out of their actions. Doubly so if the person did this purposely: intentional acts are excluded from pretty much every insurance policy on earth.

Personal liability umbrella: probably not covered, but it depends

A personal liability umbrella policy is basically an extra layer of liability insurance. It will cover some types of liability your homeowners insurance excludes – and will also cover higher payments, sometimes up to $1 million (homeowners is often limited to $300,000).

Personal umbrella policies will also often exclude liability arising out of the transmission of a communicable disease. But not always, since what constitutes a communicable disease often depends on the specific policy. Some policies only exclude sexually transmitted diseases; others will exclude any communicable disease.

Travel insurance: could be covered, depending on the situation

Travel insurance policies can vary dramatically, depending on the insured’s needs. Two of the more common coverages are for trip cancellation and emergency medical treatment.

Will travel insurance cover you if a trip gets cancelled due to an epidemic or pandemic? Again, depends on the policy, but probably not. Many travel policies will exclude losses caused by disease outbreaks.

What if you get sick and need to cancel your trip? Unfortunately, you’re probably not covered if you got sick because of an epidemic. But for other diseases, you could be covered, depending on the insurer and a whole laundry list of conditions. For example, a sickness that would be covered often requires that the sick person be so ill that they can’t travel (a mild cough won’t pay out); the sick person is also often required to have a medical professional confirm that they were, in fact, too sick to travel.

If you have emergency medical treatment coverage, then you’ll be covered for any covered medical care, including illness. However, these kinds of policies can get very complicated; it’s important to talk to your agent to make sure you are getting the coverage that you need.

I.I.I. Non-Resident Scholar: 2019 hurricane season projected to be slightly below-average

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season activity is projected to be slightly below-average, according to I.I.I. non-resident scholar Dr. Phil Klotzbach.

Dr. Klotzbach, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University (CSU), and his team are forecasting 13 named storms, five hurricanes, and two major hurricanes for the year.

A typical year has 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. Major hurricanes are defined as Category 3, 4, and 5 storms, where wind speeds reach at least 111 miles per hour.

A slower 2019 season might sound like welcome news after the 2018 Atlantic season saw 15 named storms, with eight of them becoming hurricanes (two major). However, major hurricanes can be potentially catastrophic, whether they hit during a relatively quiet year or not.

Sean Kevelighan, the I.I.I.’s CEO, stressed that homeowners and businesses need to prepare for the upcoming season. “For one, make sure you have insurance; especially for homeowners, you need coverage for both wind and flooding. Remember, these are two different policies, as flood is primarily offered via the National Flood Insurance Program. Secondly, take steps to ensure your home is fortified for resilience, such as having roof tie-downs and a good drainage system. And, finally, take inventory of your belongings as well as map out a safe evacuation route. Americans far too often bet on the storm not hitting them, but the unfortunate truth lies in historical data which shows virtually every mile of our Gulf and Eastern coastlands have been hit at one point or another.”

For more information on hurricane-proofing your home and business, check out the following:

Insurance can get weird

Yesterday’s post about insurance-related Guinness World Records got me thinking: what other weird insurance policies are out there?

If you know much about insurance, you know that the first place to inquire about weird insurance policies is Lloyd’s of London, legendary clearinghouse for the strange and unusual. (And innovative: they were the underwriters for the world’s first auto policy, the first aviation policy, and soon the first space tourism policy.)

Naturally, Lloyd’s has an entire webpage dedicated to what it (in what I imagine to be staid, Oxford-accented English) calls “innovation and unusual risks.” Some top hits include insurance coverage for David Beckham’s legs (£100 million), Keith Richards’ hands ($1.6 million), and cricketer Merv Hughes’ trademark mustache (£200,000).

My personal favorite is insurance for members of a Derbyshire Whisker Club who wanted coverage for their beards against “fire and theft.” Theft?

“Insurability”, or why we can have insurance for weird things

Weird insurance is an object lesson about “insurability.” Ideally, an insurable risk should have, at a minimum, the following features:

  • “Accidental”: insurability usually requires risks be accidental. Otherwise, an insured could just…burn down their house on purpose and collect the insurance money. That’s called fraud.
  • “Pure”: speaking of fraud, insurable risks should probably be “pure” and not speculative – meaning that an insured shouldn’t stand to gain financially from a loss.
  • “Measurable”: if a loss does happen, an insurer should need to know whether this can be measured in both time (can they tell when a loss happened) and money (how much should they pay out).

Fortunately for our hirsute Derbyshiremen, “beard insurance” satisfies all these criteria. Can a beard be destroyed by accidental fire? Check. The beard-wearer doesn’t stand to gain if his beard burns? Check. If the beard burns, we know when it happened and how much the loss would cost the bewhiskered gentleman? Check, check, and check.

There are other “ideal” features of an insurable risk, but they’re not deal breakers. They’re more like “nice to haves”. For example, some argue that an ideal risk is one that is common to a large pool of insureds, so that insurers can better project how much they might need to pay out in the event of a loss. Think of homeowners insurance: you’d probably want a large pool of homeowners to a) figure out the likelihood of certain losses and b) spread the risks out over a larger population.

Some underwriters at Lloyd’s clearly don’t think this is a requirement for insurability. After all, there is only one pair of legs belonging to David Beckham.

And it’s a good thing that a large pool isn’t always necessary requirement for insurability. For one, it means I can read about weird insurance policies. But for another, it means that as long as you’re not, say, abetting bad behavior like insuring an assassin or something, you can probably find someone willing to pay the price to cover your risks. Which makes for a better, more protected world.

The Treasury yield curve inverted. What does it mean for insurance?

The Treasury yield curve inverted last weekend and many are concerned: Sustained inverted yield curves are often harbingers of recession. Insurers could also feel the impact, since the yield curve can influence an insurer’s rates, profits, and portfolio structure.

Source: Wall Street Journal

What’s next?

An inverted yield curve may be cause for concern. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, an inverted yield curve preceded all nine U.S. recessions since 1955. The Fed estimates that typically a recession occurs within two years of the inverted yield curve.

An inverted yield curve is not a perfect predictor of future recessions. There has been one false positive, in late 1966, in which an inverted yield curve was followed by an economic slowdown, not a recession. There have also been several “flattenings” of the curve, which did not lead to recession.

But what makes last week’s shift in the 1- year Treasury curve worrisome is the convergence of other negative signals over the last year – including expected macroeconomic considerations such as the waning of the 2017 tax reform.

How might insurance be impacted by a sustained inverted yield curve?

An inverted yield curve has multiple implications for insurance, some of which depend on the nature of an insurance company’s liabilities and investment profile.

Lower long-term rates hurt insurers whose claims take a long time to settle, like workers compensation. The money set aside to settle those claims gets invested in long-term securities. When those rates fall, insurers enjoy less investment income, which lowers profits. This puts pressure on insurers to raise rates to make up for the lost investment income.

The inverted yield curve also has implications for insurer investments. Given investments in fixed income and real estate, an inverted yield curve will require adjustments to avoid mismatch in obligations and revenues. Remedial actions could include selling assets to realize capital gains because the asset value of the bonds that had been bought at higher rates would now be more valuable.

The yield curve: a brief primer

The “yield curve” is a relationship between 10-year Treasury bond yields and three-month bond yields. Usually, the 10-year bonds have higher yields than three-month bonds, to compensate investors for longer-term risks.

Source: Investopedia

But when there is recession risk and fears of falling interest rates, investors will invest in longer-term bonds to “lock in” at yields that are currently higher than they think will exist in the future. This increased demand for longer-term bonds will, paradoxically, lower yields since bond prices and interest rates are inversely related. At the same time, short-term bond demand goes down (since everyone is running to the long-term bonds), which increases yield.

If this happens, the three-month bonds will have lower yields than the 10-year bonds. And voila: the “normal” yield curve inverts.

Source: Investopedia

The longer the inversion lasts, the higher the odds of a recession in the following quarter. For example, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the yield curve inverted in August 2006 prior to the onset of the Great Recession in December 2007.

Blockchain: the anatomy of a hype

Remember blockchains?

They were going to change the world. Is there a problem or challenge? Consider using a blockchain. Engaged in a business? Consider the blockchain. Thinking about where to get lunch? Again, blockchain.

No industry would be left un-disrupted. Insurance would never be the same again.

And sure, that all might come to pass someday. Very smart people are working on blockchain applications. But right now it seems like the hype bubble is bursting, at least in the public mind.

Here are Google searches for “blockchain” over the past five years in the “finance” category:

Data source: Google Trends

Here is the search for “cryptocurrency”:

Data source: Google Trends

And just for fun, here’s the valuation of bitcoin:

Data source: CoinDesk

I’m not the first person to notice this, of course. The Gartner “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” 2018 report put “blockchains” on the cusp of the dreaded “trough of disillusionment”.

Source: Gartner

Trough of disillusionment. Sounds ominous.

Why the cool down about blockchains? The short answer: expectations have begun to re-align with reality.

There are several reasons why.

Earlier this year I wrote an article for the Actuarial Review about blockchains – and how they might be solutions in search of a problem. In the article, I cited Stephen J. Mildenhall from the School of Risk Management of St. John’s University, who compared a blockchain to a military tank. In theory you could drive your kids to school in a tank. But why would you? Tanks are extremely expensive, slow and inefficient (plus, I’m not sure they’re road-legal). A minivan would be a better solution. Like a minivan, a simple SQL database could probably do most jobs that a blockchain could do, except much more cheaply, quickly and efficiently.

Another big sell of blockchains was that they were theoretically unhackable. As I wrote last year, that’s only kinda-sorta the case. Blockchains themselves might be unhackable (depending on their governance structures), but for a lot of applications they need to connect to that extremely hackable thing called The Internet. Which is why you’re regularly reading about massive cryptocurrency heists.

But just because we’re in the trough of disillusionment (sorry, I just love that phrase), doesn’t spell the end for blockchains. This is a normal process for emerging technologies: a new technology is developed, everyone gets extremely excited, then reality kicks in and the hard (and underreported) work begins of perfecting the technology for real-world use.

I wouldn’t be surprised if blockchains quietly become ubiquitous for some applications in the near future – but how they’re integrated and what kind of real impact they’ll have are anyone’s guess.

In the meantime: beware the hype about any emerging technology.

Rampaging animals and farm liability insurance

(thankfully) placid cows

According to Deutsche Welle, an Austrian court has held a farmer liable after one of his cows killed a hiker walking through his farm. The article reported that the cow grew enraged at the hiker’s dog and charged at them. The farmer will have to pay over $200,000 in restitution for the horrible event to the deceased’s spouse and son.

I’m not well-versed on the nuances of Austrian liability law and insurance. But what if a similar (hopefully non-fatal) accident happened on a farm in the U.S. – how would insurance play a role?

Luckily, there’s a thing called “farm insurance.” It can get complicated, but often a farm insurance policy is just a hodgepodge of property and liability coverages – with a lot of customization in between for the unique needs of each farm.

Today, let’s just focus on the liability part. Imagine Farmer Joe’s cow, Betty, runs wild and breaks the leg of someone visiting his farm. What happens?

Paying for liability damages and medical expenses

The standard farm liability policy will cover damages if someone is hurt on the farm (subject to various limitations and exclusions, of course). So when Betty breaks someone’s leg, Farmer Joe’s insurance will help cover any damages he has to pay. The farm policy will also pay for some medical expenses, regardless of who is at fault for the injury. Medical expenses usually include first aid and other necessary services.

Feats of strength are not covered

Easy enough. But imagine another scenario: Farmer Joe is holding a cow race on his farm and has invited his neighbors to watch. Betty breaks loose from the race track and breaks his neighbor’s leg. In this case, Farmer Joe is probably not covered for any injuries arising out of races, strength contests, or stunts. Nor is he covered if someone got hurt while riding Betty for a fee.

Lots of policies, lots of options

There are many types of farms: dairy farms, cattle ranches, horse farms, poultry farms, agritourism farms. There are many different types of insurance coverages available for each unique situation. Here’s just a taste:

  • Horse farms and ranches (property and liability)
  • Commercial equine (liability for horse-breeding operations)
  • Equine (business coverage if a horse becomes ill or dies)
  • Livestock insurance (covers animals other than horses)
  • Crop insurance
  • Farrier (property and liability for people who shoe horses)
  • Riding instructor
  • Roadside farm stand and farmers’ market insurance
  • Agritourism (corn mazes, on-premises hay rides, petting zoos)

It’s always important to talk to an insurance agent about your coverage needs. You may not think that you have farm liability exposures, but if you live in a semi-rural or rural area and own livestock, it’s probably a good idea to double check.

You can read more about farm and ranch insurance here.

I.I.I. Report: Marijuana legalization raises concerns about drugged driving

The “green gold rush” shows no sign of slowing.

Most recently, New Jersey legislators reportedly announced a bill that would permit recreational marijuana. If signed into law, New Jersey would join ten other states and D.C. that currently permit recreational marijuana. More than 30 states and D.C. also permit medical marijuana programs of some kind.

click to enlarge

But as legalization spreads, concerns about driving under the influence of marijuana continue unabated.

Today, the I.I.I. has published a report that examines the current state of the issue.

A rocky road so far: Recreational marijuana and impaired driving” dives into the hazy questions surrounding marijuana impairment: its effects on driving abilities, how traffic safety might be impacted, and how states are grappling with the issue of “stoned driving.” (Download the report here.)

Unfortunately, there are still many unknowns when it comes to stoned driving. Marijuana impairment degrades cognitive and motor skills, of course – but marijuana-impaired driving is an evolving issue with many questions and few concrete answers. Legalization is still relatively recent. Data are still being gathered. How to understand and measure marijuana impairment are still open questions.

Do the rates of marijuana-impaired driving increase following recreational legalization? Answer: probably. Does marijuana-impaired driving increase crash risks? Answer: probably, but we still don’t concretely know to what degree. What about traffic fatalities – do those increase after legalization? There’s evidence that traffic fatalities could increase following legalization, but there is still quite a bit of discussion about this issue.

click to enlarge

There is active research, discussion and debate being conducted to answer these and other questions. As more states legalize recreational marijuana, forthcoming answers will become ever more critical to help best guide public policy and traffic safety initiatives.

To learn more, download the report here.

The future of telemedicine and workers’ compensation insurance

You can’t talk about workers’ compensation insurance these days without mentioning “telemedicine” at least once. It should therefore come as no surprise that telemedicine was given its own panel discussion at the 2019 Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s (WCRI) Annual Issues and Research Conference.

(In case you don’t know, the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) defines telemedicine as the “remote delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology.” Think of an app that lets you video chat with a doctor, for example.)

The potential benefits of telemedicine to patients, providers, and employers could be immense. Improved access to healthcare services. Fast, personalized care. Treatment efficiencies. Reduced costs. Dr. Stephen Dawkins of Caduceus USA put it this way: “It’s crystal clear, as a provider, that telemedicine is a tsunami that will change the paradigm of medical care.”

Indeed, as Dr. David Deitz of Deitz & Associates noted, telemedicine is almost the perfect storm of improved healthcare services – and is already experiencing exponential growth in the commercial health sector. Citing the ATA, he noted that there were an estimated 1.25 million telehealth visits in 2016 alone – and that some sources estimate that over 400 million of U.S. medical visits could have been telemedicine encounters.

But has telemedicine made inroads into workers’ compensation?

Dr. Deitz pointed out that there is “essentially no quantitative data on [telemedicine] use in workers’ compensation.” Furthermore, he argued that there are several open questions when it comes to telemedicine: what are the appropriate regulations and reimbursement models? Is there a quality trade-off for telemedicine versus in-person encounters? Are there any privacy or cybersecurity concerns?

Kurt Leisure, vice president of risk services for The Cheesecake Factory, offered some preliminary answers when describing his company’s new telemedicine program for worker injuries, implemented in February 2018.

According to Leisure, the program basically works as follows. An injury occurs. If urgent, the injured worker proceeds directly to urgent care or the emergency room. If it’s non-urgent, the worker calls the company’s nurse triage system for preliminary care. If the phone call isn’t enough, the worker has the option of being escalated to a telemedicine program on their smartphone.

What have been the results so far? Generally positive, with the program leading to $153,000 in hard dollar savings in 2018. But Leisure did note that there are still wrinkles that need to be ironed out. Identification of telemedicine candidates during the triage phase needs improvement.  Employee trust in the program could also improve.

But the injured workers seem to approve of the program. “Overall, I’m really excited, there’s a lot of upside potential just in our initial program,” Leisure said. “I think it will explode over time.” One particular benefit of telemedicine could be keeping workers and employers out of the courtroom. “We think the litigation rate is going to drop significantly” with widespread and effective telemedicine, said Leisure.

Indeed, despite some open questions about workers’ compensation adoption of telemedicine, the panel agreed that the industry would benefit tremendously. “Telemedicine basically gives you a conduit through which you can achieve better case management,” said Dr. Dawkins.