That the insurance industry alone can’t be expected to cover future pandemic risk seemed to be a given at yesterday’s hearings by the House Finance Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance.
But, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details.
The session – Insuring Against a Pandemic: Challenges and Solutions for Policyholders and Insurers – was chaired by Rep. William Lacy Clay. In his opening statement, Clay said, “It is not realistic or practical to expect the insurance industry to shoulder the astronomical cost of a global pandemic. The American Property and Casualty Insurance Association has estimated that paying all [COVID-19-related] claims, regardless of exclusions, would amount to $1 trillion per month.”
With respect to business interruption coverage claims currently being adjudicated, Clay referenced both the virus exclusions in most commercial property policies and the lack of “direct physical damage or loss” in COVID-19-related cases.
John Doyle, president and CEO of global insurance broker Marsh, testified on the importance of a public-private partnership to address pandemic risk, as well as to the need to “act now” on a solution for future pandemics.
“Acting now on a public-private pandemic risk solution will accelerate the economic recovery by reducing uncertainty,” Doyle said. “Moving forward, capital markets will seek assurances that companies have protection against prospective pandemic risk. The pace of recovery will depend upon the nature and degree of confidence in the marketplace.”
Doyle said the credit and power of the U.S. government is essential – “at the same time, I believe the insurance industry has a role to play.”
The Pandemic Risk Insurance Act (PRIA), introduced by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, provided the jumping-off point for the testimonies and discussions of alternative proposals. PRIA, patterned after the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was generally recognized as a good start – but several other structures were proposed to address perceived weaknesses.
One is the Business Continuity Protection Program (BCCP), advanced by the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA) and the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (Big “I”).
Brian Kuhlmann, chief corporate counsel for Shelter Insurance, speaking on behalf of NAMIC and APCIA, described BCCP as a program that “would provide straightforward revenue replacement for businesses and nonprofits of all sizes” using a parametric approach that wouldn’t require claims adjustment. Unlike traditional insurance, which pays for damage if it occurs, parametric insurance automatically pays when specific conditions are met – regardless of damage incurred.
Michelle Melendez McLaughlin, chief underwriting officer for the small commercial and middle market at Chubb, presented a “bifurcated” framework that would treat small businesses differently from mid-size to large corporations.
“Pandemics affect small and large businesses differently,” she said. The Chubb framework would cover small companies for up to three months of payroll and other expenses. Policyholders would be paid a pre-determined amount when the policy is triggered. “This provides policyholders with certainty that they will receive timely financial assistance after an event.”
For businesses with more than 500 employees, the Chubb proposal would create Pan Re – a federal reinsurance facility. “Private insurance companies that choose to sell coverage would write pandemic policies at market terms and retain some portion of the risk. The rest of the risk would be reinsured through Pan Re.”
R.J. Lehmann, senior fellow at the International Center for Law and Economics, agreed with other witnesses that the insurance industry isn’t equipped to handle pandemic risk alone. He went further to question whether insurance is the best structure for addressing this problem.
“Insurance is a system of risk transfer, not a system of economic relief,” Lehmann testified. “Even if private insurers could provide this coverage—on their own or with government support—it is not clear their incentives would align with public health goals or with the aims members of Congress likely have in mind.”
The best argument for a public-private partnership, he said, is that insurers can help policyholders mitigate risks. “But it’s important to ask, ‘Mitigate the risk of what’? The risk you’re trying to reduce is the risk that a business will shut down. But, in a pandemic, you want businesses to shut down. We want them to have a safety net so they can shut down and survive.”
Hartmann counseled legislators to take their time and get the solution right, drawing from all the options that exist.
“Let’s be humble about how little we know, even about the current pandemic,” he said. “Get help to the businesses, workers, and communities who need it now. Don’t legislate for the next pandemic while we’re in the midst of the current one.”