October 25, 2021

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What makes a home ‘uninhabitable’ after Hurricane Ida? Louisiana’s insurance companies won’t say

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After Hurricane Laura tore through Lake Charles, John Ieyoub knew his home wasn’t livable. Rain had poured in through holes in the roof, saturating sheetrock, and utilities like power and water wouldn’t be restored for weeks.

He asked his insurance company to cover the cost of a rental property for his family. But the adjuster assigned to his case denied the claim.

In their estimation, the home was livable.

“I wasn’t going to bring my family back there. That’s common sense,” Ieyoub said. “We had to fight.”

Three weeks after Hurricane Ida pummeled southeast Louisiana, thousands of survivors are learning for the first time what their insurance companies are willing to cover.

If their property is deemed “uninhabitable,” most policyholders are entitled to long-term additional living expenses, including coverage of hotel bills, restaurant meals and other expenditures. 

But it’s unclear how insurance companies determine that a property is unlivable. None of the major carriers will disclose their criteria in detail. Instead, they say, decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

That ambiguity often leaves consumers confused and frustrated, especially when a claim is denied.

“What defines livable? Down to the studs, with exposure to insulation? Is that livable?” Ieyoub said. “It’s not clear and every insurance company defines it differently.”

Like so many survivors of last year’s storms, Ieyoub had to go to battle get his insurance company to pay up. Stripped to its studs, his home wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was also unsafe. Ieyoub’s six-year-old daughter has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and the dust and debris threatened her health.

“I had to get her rheumatologist to explain to them why it’s unhealthy for her to live in an environment of dust,” Ieyoub said. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you have to do that.”

After asking for a different adjuster, and haranguing his insurance company with non-stop calls, his claim was finally approved. But the experience convinced him that reforms were needed. 

“The fact that it changes from adjuster to adjuster shows you that it’s not a good system,” Ieyoub said. “It should be a lot more cut and dry.”

As a member of the Lake Charles City Council, Ieyoub in January crafted a resolution with his colleagues calling on the state Legislature to create a clear definition of “uninhabitable” for insurance policies.

That request spawned House Bill 458, a proposal that would have required insurance companies to pay for additional living expenses when a damaged dwelling doesn’t have access to electricity, water, sewer or natural gas for more than 24 hours. 

State Rep. Gabe Firment, R-Pollock, brought the legislation to correct what he called “bad behavior” among insurance companies after Hurricane Laura. 

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“One company would make the determination that even though the roof is blown off and you’ve got water pouring into every room, no electricity, no water, ‘eh, that’s not really uninhabitable. We’re not paying for additional living expense’,” Firment, an insurance consultant, testified during the regular session.

He added, “Then you’d have another company or adjuster that would say ‘well, you don’t have electricity, you don’t have water, I guess you’ve got coverage’.”

The focus on utility outages is especially relevant in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which left millions without power and vulnerable to south Louisiana’s scorching summer heat. Already, 13 people have died from excessive heat due to extended power outages, according to Louisiana’s Department of Health. 

The legislation sailed through the House but hit a roadblock during a committee hearing in the Senate, where insurance industry lobbyist said the measure would lead to rate increases. They added that the proposal would effectively require their clients to act as insurers of the power grid. 

During the hearing, Firment said he’d pull the legislation if insurance companies could define “uninhabitable” for him, “but they can’t do that,” he argued, “because it changes on every single claim.”

The Times-Picayune | The Advocate asked each of Louisiana’s major insurance carriers for their definition of “uninhabitable” in determining eligibility for additional living expenses. None offered more than broad generalities. 

State Farm, which commands 26% of Louisiana’s insurance market, said each claim is handled on its own merits and said it considers the “customer’s health and safety; the season and climate; and accessibility of the property” when making determinations on livability.

USAA, Progressive and Allstate each said they make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. Louisiana Farm Bureau Insurance didn’t respond. 

It’s not unusual for insurance companies to keep that information secret, said Mark Friedlander, with the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group. Insurance companies rarely share their underwriting guidelines with their customers. 

“With competition, there are a lot of issues that insurers don’t discuss publicly,” Friedlander said. “It’s not surprising that you wouldn’t see this in great detail in a policy.”

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said when the Legislature reconvenes next year, he expects lawmakers in southeast Louisiana to be much more interested in insurance reforms than they were earlier this year. 

“They’re about to get a taste of what we went through — and what we’re still going through today,” Geymann said, noting that a number of his constituents have used up their additional living expenses even though they don’t yet have a home to return to. 

State Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who chairs the Senate Insurance Committee, said lawmakers need to revisit whether there should be a statutory definition of  “uninhabitable.” A joint hearing has tentatively been scheduled for Sept. 28 to hear from consumers and insurance companies on the challenges they’re facing following Hurricane Ida. 

While his insurance company ultimately relented, Ieyoub said most people don’t have the resources to fight back once their claim is rejected. He said reforms are needed to make the process “simple and understandable.”

“We’re fortunate that we could go through all the steps and play all the games, but most people can’t do that,” Ieyoub said. “A lot of people were just left out in the cold.”

Are you facing challenges with your insurance company in Hurricane Ida’s aftermath? Send your story to [email protected] and a reporter may reach out. 

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