The Washington area, like other parts of the nation, is feeling the impact of the insurance crisis in the form of higher prices and harder-to-find coverage. Examples of the problem abound:
*The District of Columbia, in emergency legislation, has agreed to cover four local nonprofit medical clinics that otherwise might have to close because their malpractice liability insurer has refused to renew their policies.
*In Virginia, some policyholders have had premium increases of 200 to 300 percent while others have been unable to find insurance at any price, according to Deputy Insurance Commissioner Paul Synnott. Hardest hit are businesses seeking insurance to cover pollution, liquor law, asbestos and pesticide liability, he said. Synnott said municipalities also are having difficulty trying to acquire liability insurance.
*The District of Columbia Bar was recently informed that its insurance policy will not be renewed, the bar's board of governors was told at their meeting last month.
*In Maryland, asbestos contractors, long-haul truckers and small businesses are having the most difficult time getting liability insurance, Insurance Commissioner Edward J. Muhl said. Others affected, he said, include day care centers, medical workers, architects, engineers, municipalities and counties.
The fall of Eastern Indemnity Co. of Maryland, which specialized in selling surety bonds, which guarantee the work of contractors, has added to the general insurance headache for the Washington area, officials said. For example, an estimated $18 million in adjusted claims have been filed against Eastern by contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and others hurt as a result of the company's collapse, Muhl said.
Of that total, about $7 million in claims was filed by Maryland residents who now are seeking restitution from the Maryland Insurance Guaranty Association (MIGA), a state-chartered agency. MIGA typically raises money to pay such claims by imposing an assessment on other insurance companies operating within the state. But because the base for the Eastern assessment currently is limited to Maryland's four other surety bond companies, legislation has been introduced to expand the base of assessment to include other carriers, such as the general liability insurers.
That means that the premiums for homeowners' policies, which include liability coverage, could increase if the legislation passes and if companies choose to pass along the cost of the Eastern assessment to their policyholders, Muhl said. He said that the increase probably would be minimal.
Eastern, a Rockville-based company taken over in December 1984 by state regulators, is one of an estimated 15 to 30 insurance carriers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked in recent months by local insurance regulators because of financial problems.
Maryland officials are investigating the possibility that the collapse of Eastern resulted from theft by company officials.
Muhl, who took over Eastern, said the other companies whose licences were suspended or revoked were on shaky economic ground for a variety of reasons, including investment losses and management failure to price insurance at a reasonable rate to compensate for investment losses.
All three Washington jurisdictions have developed market assistance plans to try to help business owners get the insurance they need to continue operating. But the debate over the insurance crisis appears to be most heated in Maryland, where legislators are considering more than a dozen insurance bills aimed at addressing the problem, according to Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery).
"We cannot permit more and more companies to go bankrupt and suffer catastrophic losses that result in their withdrawing from entire professions," Denis said. "Insurance regulation is one area where the federal government has given states a very wide berth, and it is vitally important that we not permit a collapse."