While federal and state legislators try to fashion financial relief for businesses interrupted by the public health actions related to coronavirus, pressure is mounting on private property/casualty commercial insurers to do more than explain why insurance coverage is mostly not available.
So far, insurers have declined requests to ignore policy language excluding coverage for virus-related shutdowns in business interruption policies. But those same insurers hinted they may be open to helping in some other way.
“The U.S. is in the midst of a national crisis that will require federal assistance that provides funding directly to those American individuals and businesses most in need. Our organizations stand ready to work with Congress on solutions that provide the necessary relief as soon as possible,” industry representatives said in a joint letter to Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., chair of the House Committee on Small Business, last week. (Related article, “Members of Congress Urge Insurers to Cover COVID Business Interruptions“)
Insurance trade groups have not yet disclosed any details of what they have in mind with the statement of readiness that came in response to Rep. Velazquez and 17 other members of Congress who sent a March 18 letter to the leaders of four property/casualty insurance industry groups, asking that the industry pay all business interruption insurance claims, even where their customers’ policies exclude such coverage. In their response, industry leaders told the lawmakers that most business interruption policies “do not, and were not designed to, provide coverage against communicable diseases such as COVID-19.”
Jon Bergner, assistant vice president of public policy and federal affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), put the calls for help in perspective.
“Yes, there are a lot of nascent ideas being floated as we all try to get a handle on responding to COVID-19. NAMIC members are facing many of the same challenges as the entire business community, who are also NAMIC members’ policyholders,” he told Wells Media.
He said the industry has called on Congress to provide direct federal assistance to prevent mass layoffs or business failures—as soon as possible—but cautioned about complicating delivery of assistance with more administration.
“Speed and efficiency are top priorities when it comes to providing emergency aid, and all the more so given the unprecedented scale of this crisis. Involving the insurance industry as an added layer of administration would only serve to make the system slower, even under the best of circumstances, and should be avoided at this point,” he added.
Sean Kevelighan, president and CEO of the Insurance Information Institute (III), told regulators and an audience of 2,500 on a National Association of Insurance Commissioners web conference that while there is now pressure for insurers to cover business interruption resulting from a pandemic, insurers have investigated and modeled pandemic scenarios as they do other catastrophes and found it is not feasible to underwrite the risk in a way policyholders would be able to buy.
“It is important to appreciate that as much as this is a catastrophe of historic magnitude, there are more on the horizon—hurricanes, wildfires, floods—and we must remain prepared in the way that we have long planned, so again, we can continue to act as the financial first responder that we have been for several centuries,” Kevelighan stated.
David Sampson, president and CEO of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, told the same conference that it is important to defeat efforts to “imposed retroactive coverage.” He stressed that the current surplus funds and loss reserves of the industry are there to pay claims under policies as they have been underwritten and not to pay claims not anticipated.
Sampson said business interruption issues are at such a scale in this pandemic that a federal solution is needed. He said insurers have been in talks with the White House and Congress on what that response should look like and what business insurance coverage might look like in the future.
(A version of this article was previously published on Insurance Journal)