Should insurers exercise caution on underwriting amid COVID-19?

by Leo Almazora21 Sep 2020

In the current COVID-19 reality, insurers who have been able to conduct business digitally, rather than through the traditional face-to-face, paper-based, and wet-signature methods are generally seen as ahead of the pack. But according to one industry veteran, companies must tread carefully when it comes to the underwriting process.

In a commentary published in Contingencies, a publication by the American Academy of Actuaries, seasoned life insurance underwriter Hank George said that life insurers may want to favour slow, careful underwriting to ensure they’re protected from the impact of the pandemic, reported ThinkAdvisor.

To expand the base of consumers who can quickly buy life insurance coverage online using automated underwriting, many members of the academy are working with life insurers to help minimize the traditional dependence on blood tests, urine tests, and attending physician statements.

In an apparent effort to underscore this industry posture, the academy included a disclaimer under George’s article, which said the views it expresses “do not necessarily represent the official views of the American Academy of Actuaries.”

Maintaining that “accelerated underwriting” or “simplified underwriting” may be an ill fit for the post-COVID-19 world, he said that high unemployment rates could give rise to or exacerbate mood disorders. Such conditions, he said, shorten men’s average life expectancy by eight years and women’s average life expectancy by six years.

“Underwriting psychiatric illness is more difficult than for most medical conditions,” he said.

Another possible upshot of the COVID-19 lockdown, he said, is to compromise the health system’s ability to manage life-threatening medical conditions like tumours and strokes. As many hospitals give priority to cases related to the novel coronavirus, George said the number of emergency room cases they’ve reported seeing for symptoms linked to heart attacks and strokes has decreased.

The decreased attention paid to such symptoms, George said, will result in “a formidable reservoir of future applicants who should have had proper diagnostic evaluations for suspicious symptoms of mainly chronic and usually progressive cardiovascular diseases.”

And while attending physician statements may have provided a source of rich insights about mood disorders and other chronic health problems, he said companies are “far less inclined to pursue attending physician statements in 2020 than at any time in the past 50 years.” The lack of blood tests to record blood alcohol levels may also make pandemic-induced drinking problems hard to detect, creating its own challenges.

With fewer data points tracked over the course of the underwriting process, alongside an increased risk to people’s health, George warned of a possible “unprecedented, self-imposed underwriting apocalypse” over the next five to 10 years.