Regulators and consumer advocates clashed here with actuaries and insurance group representatives over whether and how life insurance underwriters should use information about applicants’ travel plans.

The Foreign Countries Working Group, an arm of the Life Insurance and Annuities Committee at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Kansas City, Mo., held a hearing on the topic here during the NAIC’s fall meeting.

The working group started the hearing by showing a taped message from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who called travel underwriting a “despicable practice.”

“Freedom to travel is fundamental to Americans,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Wasserman Schultz talked about her own unsuccessful efforts to get additional life insurance coverage from a unit of American International Group Inc., New York.

Wasserman Schultz said she would be traveling to Poland for Congress and might travel to Israel. The AIG unit, American General, Houston, turned down the lawmaker’s application for coverage March 25.

Wasserman Schultz argued that there was no apparent reason for travel underwriting.

She cited 2004 statistics indicating that none of the 350,000 Americans who traveled to Israel that year had died in Israel.

Wasserman Schultz urged state insurance regulators at the NAIC to follow the lead of Florida lawmakers and regulators and develop model regulation that would prohibit travel underwriting that has no actuarial basis.

Arnold Dicke, an actuary representing the American Academy of Actuaries, Washington, said he believes spending long periods in a high-risk region of the world increases the likelihood that there could be a claim.

If premiums fail to reflect the increased risk, other policyholders could end up subsidizing claims for the policyholders who travel to high-risk regions, Dicke said.

North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman, chair of the NAIC’s Life Insurance and Annuities Committee, asked Dicke if companies have looked for actual travel underwriting experience data.

Experience could be based either on actual data or on anticipated data, if data collection was insufficient because a particular region was in upheaval, Dicke said.

Florida Commissioner of Insurance Regulation Kevin McCarty said building bridges in Baghdad for 2 years is different from traveling in Israel for a week.

Insurers should make it clear why they are using information about travel to a particular country in underwriting, McCarty said.

Birny Birnbaum, executive director of the Center for Economic Justice, Austin, Texas, said travel underwriting is not justified actuarially, is contrary to public policy and has not been proven to have an effect on insurers’ solvency.

Birnbaum asked about whether life insurers will ban applicants who plan to travel to Detroit, Washington and other U.S. cities with high murder rates.

Robbie Meyer, a representative for the American Council of Life Insurers, Washington, said restricting life insurers’ ability to consider travel in underwriting might hamper their ability to treat existing customers fairly.

Meyer recommended that regulators use the Unfair Trade Practices Act rather than market conduct examinations to address concerns about unfair denial of coverage.

Florida’s McCarty reported that some insurers have argued that the UTPA does not give regulators the authority to address the travel underwriting issue.