Only a few Utah-based insurance companies can be counted among the record number of industry failures happening nationwide. But the crisis has still been felt by almost all local carriers called upon to settle the unpaid claims of out-of-state companies.
Hy Gentner, chief examiner for the state Department of Insurance, said Utah-based carriers are generally healthy, compared to the rest of the country.National press reports say insolvencies are on the rise, and some experts liken it to the savings and loan crisis now being dealt with by Congress.
"We (Utah) have been very fortunate. We've only had six insolvencies since 1980, and two were companies not even authorized to carry insurance," Gentner said.
But healthy local insurance carriers haven't been so fortunate to avoid picking up the tab of the rising number of out-of-state insolvencies.
Under state law, guaranty funds have been established to handle local claims of insolvent insurance carriers with policyholders in Utah. Based on a formula, local insurance companies carrying the same lines as the failed carrier are assessed an amount that is pooled into the fund to take care of unpaid claims.
Guaranty fund assessments, used to bail out claimants of insolvent companies, have reached record levels in recent years.
Since it was created in 1972, the Utah Property and Casualty Insurance Association's guaranty fund has levied $12 million in assessments. More than half of that total - $6.8 million - came during 1985-87, said Sam Rino, association board member and treasurer.
So far the assessment increases haven't unduly burdened local carriers.
Alan Muhlstein, chief executive officer of Bear River Mutual Insurance Co., said he doesn't like insolvency assessments, but they are part of the cost of doing business. "Anytime you have an assessment it means paying out money. But, we try to plan ahead for them," he said.
Insurance companies, with the exception of health insurance carriers, can offset their assessments by deducting their guaranty fund contributions from state tax paid on premium income.
Unless a company is not generating any new business, assessments rarely outstrip premium income, so the tax deduction does help a company recoup any guaranty fund assessments. But, state coffers and taxpayers can suffer from decreased premium tax revenue that has gone toward settling insolvencies. Furthermore, on a national scale, the assessments can be passed on to consumers in form of higher rates.
However, Gentner noted that the guaranty funds' purpose of bailing out the consumers stuck with unpaid claims has worked.
While little controversy has surfaced over state guaranty funds taking care of property, casualty, annuity and life insurance claims, the health insurance guaranty fund has balked at covering all the claims of the insolvent Maxicare Utah Inc. health maintenance organization, which left more than $8 million in unpaid bills.
A lawsuit has been filed by the state in 3rd District Court to determine the amount of unpaid Maxicare claims the health insurance guaranty fund is actually liable for.
Pending the Maxicare case, the health insurance fund has not been particularly hard hit, while no assessments have been levied against property and casualty carriers since 1987. But analysts say insolvencies will continue to increase across the nation because of widespread mismanagement, fraud, decreasing asset values and weak regulation.