Technology speeds up post-hurricane claims resolution

When Hurricane Charley roared into South Florida last month with 145-mph wind gusts, the force of the storm snapped utility poles...

Technology has been helping the insurance industry to speed up dealing with claims for losses arising in the aftermath of hurricanes that hit Florida in August.

Wireless laptops, satellite systems and utomated claims processsing systems have all helped to deliver speedy decisions and payments to insurance customers who have suffered losses. And insurers are also making increased use of catastrophe modelling systems and predictive analytics to help forecast loss costs for particular regions after a disaster, according to Jamie Visker, an analyst TowerGroup.

After the most recent hurricanes, to locate customers in hard-hit areas who were stranded without power or telephones, claims adjusters for The Hartford Financial Services Group used Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies to pinpoint home addresses.

Information about damage was gathered and entered into a Panasonic CF-29 laptop computer, along with an insurance claim and digital photos of damaged vehicles. The computer, equipped with a wireless modem,  transmitted the details to one of the group's claims offices for processing.

The claim was then sent via land lines to CCC Information Services to help prepare a repair estimate. Once the estimate was received and processed, The Hartford Group then sent back an e-mail with approved coverage to the adjuster, who could write the customer a cheque on the spot  - all within a matter of minutes, said Martin Iverson, vice-president of auto physical damage for the insurance company.

The Hartford Group, which rolled out the wireless-enabled laptops en masse to 187 field appraisers in June, has used technology "to help to enhance our ability to respond to these events", said Iverson. He said the company had handled thousands of auto-related claims in Florida following hurricanes Charley and Frances.

Insurers, who are keeping a keen eye on hurricane Ivan as it  moves along the Gulf Coast, have made similar investments in emerging technologies to speed claims processing for homeowners and other policyholders in hurricane-ravaged areas.

"As the speed and memory capacity of laptops increases and the costs have dropped, insurance companies have looked at [laptops] as a pretty good investment for their adjusters. They can do estimates, request checks - they are almost an office unto themselves," said John Eager, senior director of claims at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, an association of 1,000 property and insurers.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charley, 135,000 commercial insurance claims were filed by businesses in Florida and the south east, accounting for $2.7bn (£1.5bn), or 40% of the estimated $6.755bn in total damages from the storm, according to the association.

State Farm Insurance, the largest insurer of homes in Florida and across the US, has deployed about 1,200 wireless modems nationwide for its claims adjusters in the past eight months. And it has bought another 1,000 wireless cards for independent adjusters contracted to help out during disasters such as hurricane Frances, said Mark Winland, director of claims automation and procedures.

"The [wireless] coverage has become much better, and it's much less cost-prohibitive with carrier plans which offer all-you-can-eat data transmission plans," said Winland. "This has allowed our claims reps to be more productive for our customers."

In parts of Florida where mobile phone masts were damaged or destroyed, State Farm deployed 13 satellite-equiped mobile claims units, said Winland.

Thomas Hoffman writes for Computerworld

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