Natural Disasters:

Public Policy Options for Changing the Federal Role in Natural Catastrophe Insurance

GAO-08-7: Published: Nov 26, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 26, 2007.

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In recent years, much attention has been focused on the roles that the private sector and federal government play in providing insurance and financial aid before and after catastrophic events. In this context, GAO examined (1) the rationale for and resources of federal and state programs that provide natural catastrophe insurance; (2) the extent to which Americans living in catastrophe-prone areas of the United States are uninsured and underinsured, and the types and amounts of federal payments to such individuals since the 2005 hurricanes; and (3) public policy options for revising the federal role in natural catastrophe insurance markets. To address these questions, GAO analyzed state and federal programs, examined studies of uninsured and underinsured homeowners and federal payments to them, identified and analyzed policy options, and interviewed officials from private and public sectors in both high- and low-risk areas of the United States. GAO also developed a four-goal framework to help analyze the available options.

The federal government and some states have developed natural catastrophe insurance programs that supplement or substitute for private natural catastrophe insurance. These programs were created because homeowner coverage for catastrophic events is often not available from private insurers at prices deemed affordable by insurance regulators. Large losses associated with natural catastrophes are some of the biggest exposures that insurers face. Particularly in catastrophe-prone locations, government insurance programs have tended not to charge premiums that reflect the actual risks that homeowners face, resulting in financial deficits. After a resource-depleting disaster, the programs have postfunded themselves through, among other sources, payments from insurance companies and policyholders and appropriations from state and federal taxpayers. Large numbers of Americans are not insured for natural catastrophes. Homeowners may not purchase natural catastrophe insurance because doing so is voluntary and they may not believe that the risk justifies the expenditure. In addition, some homes may be underinsured--that is, not insured for the full replacement value. GAO estimates that the federal government made about $26 billion available to homeowners who lacked adequate insurance in response to the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Given the unsustainable fiscal path of federal and state governments, they will be challenged to maintain their current fiscal role. As Congress reevaluates the role of the federal government in insuring for natural catastrophes, Congress is faced with balancing the often-competing goals of ensuring that citizens are protected and limiting taxpayer exposure. This report examines seven public policy options for changing the federal government's role, including establishing an all-perils homeowner insurance policy, providing reinsurance for state catastrophe funds, and creating a mechanism to provide federal loans for state catastrophe funds. Each option has advantages and disadvantages, especially when weighed against competing public policy goals. For example, establishing an all-perils homeowner policy is a private sector approach that could help create broad participation. But low-income residents living in parts of the United States with high catastrophe risk could require subsidies, resulting in costs to the government. Similarly, federal reinsurance for state programs could lead to broader coverage, but could displace private reinsurance. GAO also identified several policy options for tax-based incentives for insurance companies, homeowners, investors, and state governments. But these options, which could help recipients better address catastrophe risk, could also result in ongoing costs to taxpayers. While some options would address the public policy goals of charging risk-based rates, encourage broad participation, or promote greater private sector participation, these policy goals need to be balanced with the desire to make rates affordable.

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