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Pandemic pushes U.S. insurers to avoid already strained senior care market

Suzanne Barlyn

By Suzanne Barlyn July 9 (Reuters) - The coronavirus pandemic has made it even harder for senior-care centers in the United States to find or afford standard liability insurance, with rates soaring by as much as 300%, insurance brokers said. Residential care communities like nursing homes and assisted-living facilities had already faced escalating prices and a dearth of insurance providers for years. Outbreaks of the novel coronavirus and a related respiratory disease called COVID-19 in such centers only exacerbated the problem. "It was already on an upward trajectory but COVID accelerated it," Deepa Desai, who heads insurance broker Aon Plc's healthcare practice, said about rates. Senior care facilities need general and professional liability insurance, which protect against everything from slip-and-fall incidents to staff-member mistakes that harm patients. Senior-care providers with expiring policies have struggled to find insurers that will offer coverage in recent months, as some imposed moratoriums on new business deals and others jacked up prices to unaffordable levels, brokers said. For instance, insurance company Chubb Ltd imposed a moratorium on new senior-community clients in March, two sources familiar with the matter said. Chubb recently ended the moratorium but is being highly selective about terms and clients it accepts, they said. A Chubb spokesman declined to comment. Senior-care communities who can renew policies are paying far more for less coverage, industry sources said. Some insurers are adding exclusions not just for the novel coronavirus, but for communicable diseases at large. Exclusions for costs related to class-action lawsuits are also cropping up. On June 19, families of three patients who died from COVID-19 at Summit Manor sued the Columbia, Kentucky-based nursing home, saying it failed to protect residents. A spokeswoman for Signature HealthCare, which owns the facility, declined comment. To mitigate those risks, insurers are requiring customers to answer "COVID-19 questionnaires" that ask about previous outbreaks, visitation procedures and preparations for a second wave, said Joanne Wankmiller, national senior care practice leader for Marsh, insurance brokerage unit of Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc . Church Mutual Insurance Co's five-page questionnaire asks about personal protective gear supplies. "We have concerns about new shortages being able to emerge again," said Jim Ketterson, the company's senior living director. It is not yet clear how higher insurance rates are impacting the U.S. senior care industry, but pandemic-related expenses have already pushed some entities into the red. Hallworth House, a Providence, Rhode Island-based nursing home, said last month that it would close in August after losing more than $1.3 million during the past two years. The pandemic sickened more than half of its 51 residents and 20 staff members in recent months, and 12 residents died. The industry is also experiencing lower revenue, as the pandemic keeps prospective customers away. Nursing home occupancy fell nearly 6 percentage points to 79% in April from 85% in February, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care. That is partly because of state and local lockdowns and fewer referrals for care by some insurance plans due to federal restrictions. The senior-care industry is lobbying for broad federal immunity from lawsuits and also pinning its hopes on efforts in at least 21 states to grant various forms of immunity, including to nursing homes and health care providers. In the meantime, some senior care companies are thinking about creating insurance cooperatives to offset surging rates, said Barbara Duffy, a Seattle-based lawyer who advises senior communities on insurance. "These staggering bills could bring the profession to a breaking point," Duffy said. (Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Aurora Ellis)