Life insurers should check to see whether they really have enough capital to pay claims during a severe influenza pandemic.

Officials with the U.S. Treasury Department and 2 department offshoots – the Financial Services Sector Coordinating Council for Critical Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security, and the Financial and Banking Information Infrastructure Committee – make that recommendation in a new report based on the results of a 3-week pandemic flu exercise conducted in 2007.

The FSSCC, Washington, worked with the FBIIC and the Treasury Department to test how prepared banks, brokerage firms, insurers and other financial services companies really are to handle a flu epidemic that could kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans with little warning.

During the last severe flu pandemic, in 1918, National Underwriter, the publisher of the NU Online News Service, carried many articles about life insurers that went to great lengths to pay claims promptly at a time when many of their own employees were sick or dying.

The results of the 2007 readiness exercise suggest that all financial services companies should consider factors such as how moves to close schools for weeks – or months – might affect employees, and how much capacity the companies have to increase the percentage of employees who can work at home, officials write in the exercise report.

Health insurers should make sure they have the ability to handle pre-authorizations and customer service calls even if the flu forces as many as half of their employees to stay home, officials write.

“Health insurer services that affect access to care…are extremely important during the onset stages of a pandemic,” officials write. “Unnecessary delays can disrupt the [health care] delivery system and its ability to control the disease.”

Officials say they received conflicting information about whether life insurers have enough capital to pay claims during a pandemic that could cause 1.3 deaths per 1,000 insured individuals, or a very severe pandemic that could cause as many as 7 deaths per 1,000 insured individuals.

The normal mortality rate is about 0.4 deaths per 1,000 insured individuals per year, officials estimate.

“Many companies with large life insurance exposures have surplus capital that could only withstand mortality rates that were double the expected or predicted rates for 1 year,” officials write.

“Only 9% of respondents expected a significant impact from an extra 1.3 deaths per 1,000, and only 13% expected a significant impact from an extra 7.0 deaths per 1,000,” officials write. “A majority of respondents indicated only a minimal or moderate impact.”

But officials with the New York State Insurance Department say “a pandemic resulting in an additional 7.0 deaths where 1,000 would lead to a significant number of insurers becoming insolvent,” officials write.

“Life insurers that have not considered the ability of the reinsurer to pay claims during a pandemic may want to incorporate such analysis as a part of their risk management activities,” officials write.

A copy of the flu pandemic exercise report is available