By Louise Esola
Years of profitable underwriting and healthy reserves in 2019 in the workers compensation sector will help the industry weather coronavirus-related claims and lower premium in the coming months, officials with the National Council on Compensation Insurance said Tuesday.
But it remains unclear what level of claims workers comp insurers should expect from the COVID-19 outbreak or how hard higher unemployment numbers will hit payroll-related premium payments, they said.
The Boca Raton, Florida-based institute held its Annual Issues Symposium online in one afternoon after canceling the live two-day event due to the pandemic, which was the topic officials zeroed in on when discussing the financial state of the industry.
“The two themes you will hear are unprecedented financial strength and consistent performance,” said Donna Glenn, NCCI’s chief actuary, in a “state of the line” presentation that addressed where the industry stands as it faces unanswered questions regarding the pandemic’s effect on financial results.
“The system is well-positioned to face COVID-19 stress,” she said.
The workers comp sector has reported profitable results in recent years. In 2019, the industry reported a combined ratio for private carriers of 85%, making it the sixth consecutive year that the workers comp line of business has posted an underwriting gain. Last year also marked the third consecutive year of a combined ratio under 90%. The two most recent years, including the 83% combined ratio in 2018, showed the lowest workers comp combined ratio since the 1930s, according to the presentation.
Going forward, however, the industry will be deeply affected by COVID-19 claims, said Bill Donnell, NCCI president and CEO.
“Every aspect of workers compensation will be affected” by the pandemic, including claim activity stemming from infections, the extent of which is still unknown, and claims in states adopting changes to workers comp laws that would provide presumption coverage for frontline workers outside of health care who are usually not covered by for viral infections.
Several sectors, such as hospitality and tourism, will also see steep drops in premium as they are hit with record unemployment levels, NCCI officials said.
But the workers compensation industry ended 2019 in a “position of strength,” Mr. Donnell said.
Ms. Glenn highlighted that as of year-end 2019, the overall reserve position for private insurers stood at a $10 billion redundancy, doubled from $5 billion at year-end 2018. This means premium rates continued to outpace loss costs.
Meanwhile, average lost-time claim frequency across all 38 states that work with NCCI declined by 4% in 2019, on a preliminary basis, and preliminary 2019 accident year data showed average indemnity claim severity increased by 4% relative to the corresponding 2018 value. Medical lost-time claim severity increased by 3%.
Looking ahead, Ms. Glenn said one of the “biggest unknowns” will be the length of shutdowns. In addition, different industries will post different results. The decline in hospitality, manufacturing and distribution, for example, could be offset by increased demand for health care, groceries and home delivery of goods. In the “middle,” many industries have increased telecommuting, which has led to fewer layoffs in some fields.
Meanwhile, the industry should expect midterm premium adjustments that take into account lower payroll figures, she said.
Claim activity will also vary, Ms. Glenn said. Some employees may delay care or not report claims, and some existing claimants could see their return to work and recovery hindered by fewer jobs and doctor check-ups. “Hard data” on the overall effect of the pandemic will be “extremely limited,” she said.
“In the coming quarters we will continue to learn more,” she said.