Over the last two years, employers and groups that self-insure their workers’ compensation exposures have enjoyed reasonably favorable terms on their excess insurance policies. Both premiums and self-insured retentions (SIRs) have remained relatively stable since 2014. This trend is likely to continue through 2016, but the long-term outlook for this line of coverage is less promising. Changing loss trends, stagnant interest rates, deteriorating reinsurance results and challenging regulatory issues are likely to have a negative impact on excess workers’ compensation insurance in the near future.
Predictions for 2016
Little direct information is available on the excess workers’ compensation marketplace even though written premiums well exceed $1 billion nationwide. Accurately forecasting changes in the marketplace is largely a function of the prevalent conditions of the workers’ compensation, reinsurance and financial marketplaces. But, based on available information, premium rates, retentions and policy limits should remain relatively flat on excess workers’ compensation policies for the balance of the 2016 calendar year. This projected stability is because of four main factors: positive results in the workers’ compensation industry over the last two years, availability of favorable terms in the reinsurance marketplace, an increase in the interest rate by the Federal Reserve at the end of 2015 and continued investment in value-added cost-containment services by excess carriers.
For calendar year 2014, the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) reported a 98% combined ratio for the workers’ compensation industry nationwide. In 2015, the combined ratio is projected to have improved slightly to 96%. This equates to a 2% underwriting profit for 2014 and a projected 4% underwriting profit for 2015. This is the first time since 2006 that the industry has posted positive results. The results were further bolstered by a downward trend in lost-time claims across the country and improved investment returns.
Reinsurance costs and availability play a significant role in the overall cost of excess workers’ compensation coverage. On an individual policy, reinsurance can make up 25% or more of the total cost. Excess workers’ compensation carriers, like most insurance carriers, purchase reinsurance coverages to spread risk and minimize volatility generated by catastrophic claims and adverse loss development. Reinsurers have benefited from underwriting gains and improved investment returns over the last three years. These results have helped to stabilize their costs and terms, which have directly benefited the excess workers’ compensation carriers and, ultimately, the policyholders that purchase excess coverage.
According to NCCI, the workers’ compensation industry has only posted underwriting profits in four of the last 25 years. This includes the two most recent calendar years. To generate an ultimate net profit and for the industry to remain viable on a long-term basis, workers’ compensation carriers rely heavily on investment income to offset the losses in most policy years. For the first time since 2006, the Federal Reserve increased target fund rates at the end of 2015. Although the increase was marginal, it has a measurable impact on the long-term investment portfolios held by workers’ compensation and excess workers’ compensation carriers. Workers’ compensation has a very long lag between the time a claim occurs and the date it is ultimately closed. This lag time is known as a “tail.” The tail on an excess workers’ compensation policy year can be 15, 20 and even as much as 30 years. An additional 0.25% investment return on funds held in reserve over a 20-plus-year period can translate into significant additional revenue for a carrier.
Excess workers’ compensation carriers have moved away from the traditional model of providing only commodity-based insurance coverage over the last 10 years. Most have instead developed various value-added cost-containment services that are provided within the cost of the excess policies they issue. Initially, these services were used to differentiate individual carriers from their competitors but have since evolved to have a meaningful impact on the cost of claims for both the policyholder and the carrier. These services include safety and loss control consultation to prevent claims from occurring, predictive analytics to help identify problematic claims for early intervention and benchmarking tools that help employers target specific areas for improvement. These value-added services not only reduce the frequency and severity of the claims experience for the policyholder, but excess carriers, as well.
Long Term Challenges
The results over the last two years have been relatively favorable for the workers’ compensation industry, but there are a number of long-term challenges and issues. These factors will likely lead to increasing premiums or increases in the self-insured retentions (SIRs) available under excess workers’ compensation policies.
Loss Trends: Workers’ compensation claims frequency, especially lost-time frequency, has steadily declined on a national level over the last 10 years, but the average cost of lost-time claims is increasing. These two diverging trends could ultimately result in a general increase in lost-time (indemnity) costs. Further, advances in medical technology, treatments and medications (especially opioids) are pushing the medical cost component of workers’ compensation claims higher, and, on average, medical costs make up 60% to 70% of most workers’ compensation claims.
Interest Rates: While the Federal Reserve did increase interest rates by 0.25 percentage point in late December, many financial analysts say that further increases are unlikely in the foreseeable future. Ten- year T-bill rates have been steadily declining over the last 25 years, and the current 10-year Treasury rate remains at a historically low level. A lack of meaningful returns on long-term investments will necessitate future premium increases, likely coupled with increases in policy retentions to offset increasing losses in future years.
Reinsurance: According to a recent study published by Ernst & Young, the property/casualty reinsurance marketplace has enjoyed three consecutive years of positive underwriting results, but each successive year since 2013 has produced a smaller underwriting profit than the last. In 2013, reinsurers generated a 3% underwriting profit followed by a 2% profit in 2014 and finally an underwriting profit of less than 1% in 2015. Like most insurance carriers, reinsurers utilize investment income to offset underwriting losses. As the long-term outlook for investments languishes, reinsurance carriers are likely to move their premiums and retentions upward to generate additional revenue, thus increasing the cost of underlying policies, including excess insurance.
Regulatory Matters: Workers’ compensation rules and regulations are fairly well-established in most states, but a number of recent developments at the federal and state levels may hurt workers’ compensation programs nationwide. The federal government continues to seek cost-shifting options under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to state workers’ compensation programs. Later this year, state Medicaid programs will be permitted to recover entire liability settlements from state workers’ compensation plans – as opposed to just the amount related to the medical portion of the settlement. At the state level, there are an increasing number of challenges to the “exclusive remedy” provision of most workers’ compensation systems. Florida’s Supreme Court is currently deliberating such a challenge. Should the court rule in favor of the plaintiffs, Florida employers could be exposed to increased litigation from injured workers. A ruling against exclusive remedy could possibly set precedent for plaintiff attorneys to bring similar litigation in other states. Lastly, allowing injured workers to seek remedies outside of the workers’ compensation system would strip carriers and employers of many cost-containment options.