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Valuing Life

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I have to admit that I have always been bemused–not to mention mystified, confounded, confused, annoyed, angered and downright flabbergasted–at, one, the refusal of the Bush administration to sanction including group life insurance under the aegis of terrorism risk insurance legislation, and, two, the craven acceptance of this misguidedness by Congress.

Amazingly, group life was included in the House version of the extension of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act that was passed last year. I say amazingly because I’m hard pressed to come up with another example of the House diverging so much from something the White House wanted–or in this case, didn’t want.

However, it was the Senate version of the bill which ultimately went to President Bush for his signature. And in that bill was encased a scaled-down version of the original TRIA program, rather than the expansion many in the industry hoped for.

The Senate version, needless to say, did not include group life.

In any case, the extension is set to expire after Dec. 31, 2007, which is likely why some hearings on the issue have recently occurred and why the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on life insurers and the so-called NCBR risks.

NCBR risks–standing for nuclear bombs, biological weapons, chemical weapons or radiological materials–in the post-9/11 era are not the stuff of science fiction, unfortunately, but represent possibilities that are all too real.

After occurrences like anthrax scares in this country and Sarin on subways in Japan, such threats to human life need to be taken seriously–certainly as seriously as the threat of damage to an office building.

Apparently, however, providing compensation for damage to buildings is considered by the administration and its lackeys to be more important than compensating for the destruction of human life.

Perhaps there is a rationale here that I am just not getting. But then it seems that Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., who chairs the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, doesn’t get it either. As Matt Brady reports in this issue, Kelly said at a hearing on Sept. 27 that the failure to include group life under the original TRIA legislation or its extension “is equal to a neutron bomb.”

As a native of a big city (OK, the greatest big city in the world) perhaps I am peculiarly sensitive to the thought of a massive concentration of people being destroyed at one time. New York, with its many office buildings that each can house thousands of workers during the day, is all too vulnerable to NBCR attacks.

Isn’t that what our national grieving over 9/11 is all about? As much as anyone may miss the Twin Towers near the southern tip of Manhattan, no one is carrying around the grief for those buildings that so many family members and friends–and even strangers–are still feeling for those who died on 9/11.

I’m sure that someone in the administration felt that the group life insurance business was trying to put one over on the government and that its complaints about reinsurance drying up and the potentially catastrophic exposure companies face is a lot of hot air meant to secure a place at the government trough.

But this is human life that’s at issue here, and I don’t care what anybody says, there’s nothing more valuable in the whole world, nothing at all.

Steve Piontek