GAO on Flood Insurance: Let the Private Sector Help

In last week's edition of The Taxpayer's Tab, we featured H.R. 3370 as the "Most-Friended" bill with 178 cosponsors in the House. The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act would delay a provision passed in 2012 that phases out the government's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) subsidies and charges higher premiums more in line with full-risk rates.

That law, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, also ordered the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study on how to better incorporate private-sector solutions to the NFIP's financial woes. The GAO released their findings in a new report this week and suggested that reducing government involvement in the flood insurance market could benefit taxpayers in the long-run.

The NFIP's fiscal troubles have been well-documented over the years. The program has appeared on the GAO's "high-risk" list every year since 2006 and owes over $24 billion in debt; worse still, the program hasn't paid back any of the principal on the loans it's received since 2010. Unfortunately, taxpayers are ultimately responsible for digging the NFIP out of its mounting debt, and delaying premium increases would tack on an additional $900 million to that burden (as we noted in the Tab).

But as GAO points out, the damage could at least be contained going forward: "...[S]ome have suggested shifting exposure to the private sector and eliminating subsidized premium rates, so individual property owners -- not taxpayers -- would pay for their risk of flood loss."

In its report, GAO summarized a series of discussions it had with stakeholders that work within the industry to better understand how to transition towards a flood insurance market with greater private participation. That starts with making the marketplace more enticing for private firms to enter. Two key recommendations to make that a reality:

  • Allow private insurers to assess flood risk themselves. Currently, FEMA publishes "risk maps" based on the likelihood of an insured home to experience flood damage; the maps help determine the premium rates that FEMA charges. However, various private risk assesment professionals questioned the reliability of those maps, and suggested that private flood insurers would want greater flexibility to assess flooding risk through their own methodologies.
  • Allow private insurers to charge premiums that accurately reflect that risk. According to GAO, "Stakeholders said it was challenging for private insurers to gain enough confidence to enter the flood insurance market because they feared not being able to charge actuarially sound rates or obtain a reasonable rate of return." Although charging higher rates would probably be unpopular politically, it would more accurately reflect the price of coverage, encourage more firms to enter the flood insurance marketplace, and -- perhaps most importantly -- be financially sustainable.

GAO suggests that there would still be a role for government involvement in the flood insurance market, but in line with previous recommendations, suggested that Congress should consider eliminating subsidized premiums and charge full-risk rates to all policyholders.

Stakeholders also voiced concern over a complicated regulatory environment that would need to be addressed before private firms decide entry into the market could be viable. Additionally, GAO supported means-testing as a possible solution to affordability issues: "Currently, subsidies are available regardless of a property owner's ability to afford a full-risk premium. Means testing the subsidies would ensure that only those who could not afford full-risk rates would receive assistance and should increase the amount in premiums NFIP collects to cover losses."

The full report is available online.