Great American Insurance Company is catching flak from some policyholder and legal quarters for a coverage stance it has taken on a Houston office fire. Three people died in a 2007 blaze and their estates are suing the building owners, who are insured by Great American. The insurer is disclaiming coverage based on the policy’s “pollution exclusion,” arguing that smoke is a pollutant and the smoke caused the fatalities. At issue is $25 million in claims. Is this a smokescreen or a legit coverage defense?
Those voting “smokescreen” seize on this vignette as an example of bad claim service and the need for insurance buyers to factor in quality of claims-handling when making insurance buying decisions. I will not endorse or excoriate Great American’s coverage stance. Rather, my focus is on how risk managers and insurance buyers can assess claims-handling quality in the buying equation.
Call me a cynic, but I wonder how many risk managers or buyers would still take an insurer’s price if the quote was low enough. Put differently, I wonder just how much – if at all – a “bad claims reputation” really weighs materially in buyers’ decisions if they can save dollars on coverage cost. Too often lip service is paid to claims-handing quality, but too often in the real world marketplace -- when push comes to shove -- it’s more often all about “getting the lowest quote.”
Premiums are expressed in dollars and cents. The cost is measurable. Financial rating agencies like A.M. Best and Moody’s provide quantitative assessments of financial strength.
Measuring quality of claim service? That sounds pretty warm and fuzzy. Here, however, are seven suggestions for risk managers and insurance buyers in trying to assess the quality of claims handling for a prospective insurance partner:
1. Ask for client references and contact information. (The obvious drawback here is that the insurer would have to be an idiot to give anything other than cherry-picked, glowing references.)
2. Have your insurance broker assess the industry perception and “scuttlebutt” about a candidate carrier’s claim service.
3. Check with the state Insurance Department regarding the number of complaints filed against a carrier. (In some states, you can do this on-line.)
4. Ask the insurer for the resumes of the claim professionals who would be handling your claims. If it balks or says it cannot determine who would be in charge of your claims, that is a bad sign.
5. Ask the insurer rep to give you three reasons why their claim service is better than the competition. If they bumble stumble or harrumph, move on to the next candidate.
6. Request a copy of any written customer/claim service standards that the insurer has that governs claim-handling procedures
7. Have an attorney do a quick Lexis-Nexis search on the carrier to gauge how often it is engaged in coverage litigation, the fate of such cases, the frequency of bad faith suits, etc.
Price-driven insurance buying decisions are not necessarily bad. However, some risk managers and buyers may find out that the coverage quote was cheaper for a reason. By the time they get stuck with crappy claim service or a farfetched coverage disclaimer, no one is likely to console them by reminding them that they got a 10% discount on the cost of coverage.
Measuring and assessing quality of claim service is probably never going to be as easy, measurable or quantitative and is comparing costs or financial ratings. Nevertheless, astute buyers can elevate the caliber of their due diligence in ferreting out this crucial component of the buying decision. Further, astute insurance companies and adjusting firms can assess these suggestions and proactively package their proposals to demonstrate a commitment to high caliber claim service.
And that’s no smoke job