By Suzanne Barlyn
(Reuters) - The U.S. insurance industry is promoting the idea of an insurance plan backed by the federal government that would help businesses that in the future suffer losses from a pandemic, people familiar with the effort told Reuters.
The campaign involves discussions with lawmakers and regulators, public statements and coordination with a broad coalition of non-insurance companies including retailers, hoteliers and booksellers, sources said.
Insurers are doing this after facing multiple lawsuits, fierce political pressure and criticism from customers with business interruption policies over not covering their recent financial hardships due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
About 40% of small businesses have business interruption coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group.
While these policies may cover revenue losses from hurricane damage, lightning strikes or cars crashing into buildings, they either exclude or do not specifically cover a global pandemic, however much it may interrupt business.
U.S. insurers say they would not have the financial means to help every insured business affected by coronavirus, even if required to.
"The industry doesn't have as much money available for new claims as people would tend to think," said Steven Weisbart, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute.
Insurers have a lot more money for potential claims than regulators require, but they need the funds for other types of claims, such as hurricanes and wildfires, he said. Eight U.S. states have introduced legislation that would require insurers to pay claims, mainly to small businesses, despite exclusions, efforts that could more than deplete the industry surplus if enacted.
The U.S. industry has about $750 billion to $800 billion in gross surplus, compared with the $400 billion required by regulators, he said. The industry spent $622 billion last year on claims and related expenses, Weisbart said.
"If we ever had a bad hurricane season or bad anything else, we wouldn't have enough money," he said.
Insurers want the pandemic policies to be backed by the U.S. government, similar the government-supported commercial terrorism products after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Chubb Ltd <CB.N> Chief Executive Officer Evan Greenberg called for that kind of public-private partnership on April 22. John Doyle, chief executive of insurance broker Marsh LLC, a Marsh & McLennan Companies unit <MMC.N>, also offered "assistance" in crafting such an idea in a March 30 letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
Two non-insurance trade groups also sent pleas for such a policy to U.S. lawmakers and officials on April 20: RIMS, which represents risk managers at major businesses and the National Retail Federation, which partnered with 16 other business groups.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a letter on Wednesday, also asked U.S. lawmakers to create a program to help businesses during future pandemics, either through a federal trust fund or government-sponsored insurance.
The idea of government-backed insurance has gotten some uptake in Washington.
Lawmakers including Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Lacy Clay, senior members of the House Financial Services Committee, are circulating draft bills for creating a government-backed pandemic insurance policy, suggesting it would help small businesses, while Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick has introduced a similar measure.
A group of state lawmakers also held a joint webinar with industry representatives earlier this month, in part to talk about the need for a government-backed pandemic product.
There is scant chance that any new insurance policy will help business owners whose revenue has already been hit.
Proposals in Congress would require time and studies before being put in place, experts and lawyers said.
In the meantime, one product that does exist, pandemic business-interruption insurance launched by Marsh in 2018, is not writing coverage for coronavirus. The policy did not initially sell well although demand has since spiked, said Christian Ryan, the company’s hospitality, sports and gaming practice leader.
"The industry has a finite balance sheet that can't take infinite risk," Chubb’s Greenberg said.
(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra, Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio)