NU Online News Service, June 5, 12:08 p.m. EDT

LAS VEGAS–Property-casualty claims executives addressing top industry issues at a conference mentioned catastrophes, budget pressures, recruitment and regulation among key items.

Their comments came during a session at the Claims‘ ACE conference this week moderated by James Mullarney, director of product strategy for Oracle Insurance’s global business unit.

Panelists included Mike Stapleton, senior vice president, claim administration for CNA Financial Corporation; Mark McGillivray, assistant vice president, Allstate Corporation; and Lisa St. Onge, assistant vice president, Amica Mutual Insurance Company.

All agreed that managing catastrophes will always remain an ulcer-inducing exercise.

“The Long Island Express hurricane is my worst nightmare,” said Ms. St. Onge. “How do you handle a claim volume that could be one or two times your yearly average? It can be done, but we have to get creative and have a strong foundation.

“That means having the right equipment and the right technology in the hands of your individuals and being nimble. That means load balancing and having a phone system that allows you to be flexible in terms of response,” she advised.

When asked about how economic conditions were influencing their jobs, Ms. St. Onge said her company is seeing an increase in the number of claims being made.

“The economic times have made it more difficult for people to self-insure losses,” she said. “They have a situation in which they have a covered loss, but unfortunately they just do not have the financial capability to pay that claim. They prefer to have the money now for that particular covered loss and deal with the potential rate increase over a three-to-five-year period, as opposed to paying it now on their own.”

Mr. McGillivray of Allstate said the economy was having other effects. “Uninsured motorist numbers are going up,” he said. “That is, less people are paying premiums, so there is clearly some top-line pressure. All of us in the industry are going to feel that pressure and claim departments are going to have to manage their expenses very aggressively and do the right thing from an identification perspective to make sure the right amount is being paid.”

Economic pressures were not directly mentioned when the roundtable participants were asked to discuss their top worries.

“A big concern is talent management,” said Mr. McGillivray. “How do we make sure we have skilled people and the appropriate expertise? How do we keep our best people and keep them motivated and doing the work we know they need to? How do we keep claims an interesting and fascinating career for individuals?”

Technology was also mentioned by several participants as a top problem. Mr. McGillivray pointed out the risks of converting formerly piecemeal claim solutions into one system.

“Once you go through a major conversion and have just one system, you realize that, if that one system goes down, you can’t do anything. In the past, you might have several systems operating so that you might be able to get some work done elsewhere. Not so with one system. So you have to manage that risk. That worries me.”

CNA’s Mr. Stapleton agreed. “We have multiple systems, but unfortunately there might be only one person who really understands each one,” he said. “My fear is that person will get hit by a bus tomorrow, and there won’t be anybody who has the specific knowledge on a system that is very important to our overall platform.”

Mr. Stapleton also mentioned how changing regulatory and compliance requirements are affecting his department, giving him cause for concern.

“Whenever there is a regulatory issue that comes up, everyone looks to the claim department to fix it,” he said. “That’s fine, because we have the data, systems and knowledge to do it. The claim department is going to be looked at to be a regulatory watcher. It’s good for us because it gets us more involved in the business aspects of insurance. But it is clearly a concern.”

Ms. St. Onge, meanwhile, worried about big-picture perceptions. “[Amica] is a company that has a national reputation for customer service,” she said. “That’s not something we want to lose. What can we continue to do to differentiate ourselves and build on that relationship? Are we giving customers what they want? Obviously, they want a check and want it quickly, but there are a lot of steps and variations in between. How do you thrive?”

Eric Gilkey is Claims Magazine Editor