Here you'll find questions and answers to many common insurance questions.
Q: What are the differences among the major types of insurers in the United States?
The insurance industry is typified by insurers with a number of different organizational forms. Stock insurers are corporations owned by the shareholders of the firm. The shareholders hire managers to run the company and the insurance product is sold to customers who may or may not be shareholders in the firm. Mutual insurers are companies which are owned by their customers. Any policyowner of the company also owns a portion of the company. Reciprocal insurers or reciprocal exchanges are insurance companies where the policyowners of the exchange agree to insure one another. They are very similar to mutual companies.
Lloyd's associations are insurance companies where the manager who makes the decisions for the firm also has his/her own personal wealth at stake in the firm. Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurers are typically nonprofit (some may now be for profit), community oriented health insurance providers. Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies typically offer traditional indemnity health insurance. HMO's or Health Maintenance Organizations are companies which provide comprehensive health care coverage to their customers. HMO's, in their simplest form, provide prepaid health care coverage. Once you pay your premium you can use the services of the HMO at little or no further cost to you.
Q: Should I care which type of insurer I purchase insurance from?
From the customer's point of view, the company which offers you the product and service you want, at the quality you desire, for the lowest cost should be the company you purchase insurance from regardless of their organizational form. Economists have tried in numerous studies to identify which one of its organizational forms can provide the insurance product at the lowest cost and the answers are mixed. Therefore, potential customers should probably base their purchasing decisions on other factors such as the financial quality of the firm.
Q: Some insurance agents I talk to say they are paid employees of the insurance company while other agents says they are independent business people -- why the difference? Should I care which one I purchase insurance from?
Insurers deliver their insurance products to policyowners primarily through independent agents or through exclusive agents. Historically, almost all insurance agents were independent business people paid on commission. More recently, many insurance companies have adopted a system where the agent is a paid employee of the firm rather than an independent business person. These agents are referred to as exclusive agents.
Economists who have studied the differences between these two types of distribution systems have long argued that the independent agency system is a less efficient method of getting the insurance product to the customer as measured by statistics such as the ratio of expenses incurred to premiums written. However, the most recent studies suggest that the reason for the higher expenses by independent agents is that they offer better quality service to policyowners through more personalized service, more advice on policy limits, more help when a claim is filed with the company, etc.
Q: What do I give up by not using an agent to purchase insurance?
Many life insurance and property-casualty insurance products can be purchased without the use of an agent. Typically potential policyholders will either be contacted through the mail or they can call a 1-800 number to apply for the insurance product. The advantage of this type of distribution system is that the expenses of selling the product are usually much lower because their are no agent commissions to be paid. These savings may then be passed onto the consumer through lower premiums. The main disadvantage is that the policyholder does not receive as much, or sometimes any, personal service either purchasing the product or in filing a claim.
Q: I understand there are organizations that assign financial ratings to insurance companies. Who are they and what do they do?
Insurance is a product where the insurance company promises to make future loss payments in return for a premium you pay today. It is therefore important that you know the financial health of the insurer when you are deciding how much you are willing to pay for the product. For example, holding all other things equal, people should pay slightly more for a life insurance policy from an insurance company with a higher financial rating, or should pay slightly less for the same policy from a company which is not as financially strong.
In order to make this kind of informed purchasing decision, a number of private organizations, called rating agencies, rate the financial stability of insurance companies. Major insurance rating agencies include the A.M. Best Company, Standard & Poor's, Weiss Research, Duff and Phelps, and Moody's. Each of these companies uses data obtained from various sources to rate the financial strength of insurance companies. It should be noted, however, that each organization has its own rating standards and therefore the financial grades from two different rating agencies may be different. The best advice usually given to insureds is to check the financial rating of the insurer from as many rating agencies as possible to determine the range of opinions of the financial health of the company.
Q: Where can information be found on the largest insurance companies in the United States?
The monthly publication Best's Review (Life and Health Edition) periodically contains information on assets, premium income and products sold by most of the largest life insurance companies operating in the U.S. The sister publication, Best's Review (Property and Casualty Edition) provides certain statistical information on large property-casualty companies. Both magazines are published by the A.M. Best Company in Oldewick, N.J. Public libraries in cities of medium to large size frequently subscribe to one or both of these magazines.
Q: What kinds of questions should I be expected to answer when I am applying for an insurance policy? Why do insurers ask all of these questions?
When you apply for an insurance policy, you will be asked a number of questions. For example, the agent will ask you a number of demographic questions such as your name, age, sex, address, etc. In addition to these demographic questions, you will be asked a number of other questions which will be used to determine what type of risk you are. For example, when an insurance company is deciding whether or not to offer auto insurance to a potential policyowner, it will want to know about the person's previous driving record, whether there have any recent accidents or tickets, what type of car is to be insured and various other types of information.
All of this information will be used for two purposes. First, based upon the responses to these questions, the insurance company will decide whether the profile of the applicant is consistent with the type of risks the insurer is trying to attract. Some insurers specialize in offering insurance to only very safe drivers and therefore will only accept applications from people who fit the profile of a safe driver. Once the insurer has decided that your risk profile is consistent with the types of risks it accepts, the answers to the questions will be used to determine which rate to charge you. For example, the insurance company will decide whether you should be offered insurance at the high risk driver rate or the low risk driver rate.
Collectively, this entire process is known as the underwriting process. The primary function of the underwriting department in an insurance company is to decide whether or not to offer insurance to a person who has completed an application. If the answer is yes, then the underwriting department seeks to determine the "quality" of that risk so that the proper premium can be charged. That is, high risk people should pay more than low risk people.
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