RICHMOND, NOV. 19 -- Broad segments of Virginia industry, from small taverns to giant corporations, are still suffering from a shortage of affordable liability insurance despite new state laws designed to ease a crisis in that coverage, according to a study released today.
The report by the State Corporation Commission, which surveyed more than 850 insurance companies and agents across Virginia, painted a generally bleak picture of commercial liability protection -- insurance that the SCC said continues to be priced nearly out of the reach of many businesses.
"While this had a favorable effect on insurer profitability, it had a negative effect on the consumer," the SCC report said.
The survey also found cases where insurance is not even available because "insurers are perceiving the risk as too great to earn a profit."
Many of the groups hit hardest by the national crisis in liability insurance -- municipalities, day care providers, commercial contractors, professionals such as doctors and lawyers -- continue to be caught in the insurance crunch in Virginia, the SCC said. For instance, 23 companies insure Virginia day care centers, but "they are doing so with restrictions that significantly limit such coverage's value," the report said.
Compounding the day care problem is the difficulty of most of those centers "to pass on their increased insurance costs to parents, especially the single parents and those on public assistance," the survey said.
The SCC conducted its survey at the direction of the General Assembly, which reacted to the escalating cost of insurance by enacting a package of "reform" legislation this year designed to clear up the most troubled lines of coverage.
The commission's survey is an important part of that legislative effort, because it was designed to determine where competition was effectively regulating insurance rates and to serve as a bench mark for future state regulation of the industry.
While the SCC found no evidence of price-fixing or "direct or indirect concerted pricing behavior" by Virginia insurance carriers, the report did identify lines and classes of insurance where competition seemed to be at best a poor regulator of rates.
For example, all 14 insurers offering coverage to firms working in waste management and other environmental fields include "significant underwriting and coverage restrictions" in their policies, the report said.
"The highly specialized expertise required to write this line serves as a barrier to attracting new writers," the survey added. "Also, because of the significant pollution exposure and limited reinsurance available for this market, the business environment for writing this line is still perceived to be very unfavorable."
Other "potentially noncompetitive" insurance lines include products liability, the coverage for liquor retailers and bar owners, and liability protection for corporate officers and directors, the report said.
Allen C. Goolsby III, a Richmond lawyer who helped shape the legislature's response to the insurance crisis, said the SCC's report reflects the "lingering concern" of many in state government about the affordability of coverage.
If the continuing crunch were caused only by insurers overreacting to their underwriting losses of the early 1980s, "you've got to figure that our free-enterprise system will produce some cure," said Goolsby, who is counsel to the Medical Society of Virginia, a statewide doctors group.
"To the extent it's not an overreaction, then you've got to assume that additional legislative solutions have to be considered," he added. "I suspect the problem is a little bit of both."