Swine Flu Claims Possible For Comp, Life Insurance, Expert Says

NU Online News Service, April 30, 1:52 p.m. EDT

The property-casualty insurance sector most likely to see any swine flu claims would be the workers' compensation line, an insurance expert who has studied influenza pandemics said today.

But Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute, also said that bringing such comp claims would probably be difficult.

In general, he said the U.S. property-casualty, life insurance, and reinsurance industries have the capacity to weather any swine flu claims surge, even in the remote likelihood of an outbreak comparable to the deadly 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.

That event killed 675,000 people in the United States. Annually the U.S. death rate from flue strains is currently 36,000.

"Given the coordinated, effective efforts of public health groups we saw earlier this decade, amid the SARS and avian flu scares, it is likely that the spread of swine flu can be contained or at least more limited than it would have been in prior years," according to Mr. Weisbart.

Concerning comp claims arising from swine flu, he said there was a possibility of claims "by people who get sick and have evidence it was arising from the workplace--if a cluster all got sick from one employer."

He said such claims could involve lost-time payments from people who had to stay home. But without solid evidence tying their illness to the workplace, he said it would be difficult for an individual employee to bring a claim.

Outside of workers' comp, in the property-casualty sector, "I don't see any other line obviously affected," said Mr. Weisbart.

Concerning possible factors that could make the swine flu outbreak worse than the 1918 pandemic, Mr. Weisbart mentioned that there are "more people today with compromised immune systems because of AIDS or because of treatment for cancer with radiation and chemotherapy that weakens their systems."

He also mentioned the difficulty in quickly producing a swine-flu-specific vaccine. It could take up to six months before there are ample supplies to inoculate large numbers of people, he noted.

Some drugs--such as Relenza and Tamiflu and other antiviral medications--can make symptoms less serious, and might help, "but it's hard to know. It's something people will try," said Mr. Weisbart.

In a 2006 paper on the Avian flu, he estimated that an outbreak along the lines of the 1918 pandemic could cause an estimated $133 billion in additional death claims for life insurers.

But detection and confirmation of the presence of a virus is more rapid today, he noted. The World Health Organization has 133 centers in 84 countries to collect and analyze viruses, he wrote, as well as better, more specialized health care facilities and equipment--emergency rooms, intensive care units, mechanical ventilators, etc.--that can mitigate secondary effects .

Influenza pandemics in 1957 and 1968, were much milder than the 1918 outbreak, the paper noted.

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