The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic effects on insurance consumers and companies are likely to linger well into 2021 and beyond, according to a new survey from the credit reporting agency TransUnion. The report called the pandemic a “watershed moment” for the insurance industry and highlighted its ongoing and possibly permanent consequences.

Key Takeaways

  • TransUnion surveyed more than 3,100 U.S. insurance consumers to gain insights into the pandemic’s short- and long-term effects on home, auto, renter’s, and life insurance.
  • Chief among respondents’ concerns was how they would be able to pay their insurance bills during the ongoing economic slump.
  • Insurance companies are expected to continue adopting digital measures following an increase in the use of mobile apps, web portals, and email to manage insurance claims.

Consumers Are Worried About Their Bills

Conducted during the first week of December 2020, the survey canvassed 3,148 U.S. consumers with active auto, homeowners, renter’s, and/or life insurance policies.

Its findings suggest that large numbers of consumers are worried that they won’t be able to pay their insurance bills in 2021. According to the survey, 44% of respondents were concerned about their auto insurance bills and 22% were unsure if they’d be able to cover their life insurance premiums.

Keeping up with insurance costs isn’t consumers’ only concern. The TransUnion survey found  that 26% of respondents were worried about their car payments and 23% were anxious about their mortgages. A separate survey by AccessOne, a company that offers payment plans for medical care, reported that approximately 50% of consumers would be “concerned about their ability to pay for a medical bill of less than $1,000.”

“Given the level of economic uncertainty and increased health risks presented by the pandemic, 2020 has been a challenging year for patients and providers alike,” AccessOne CEO Mark Spinner said in a December press release. “Patients are continuing to delay medical care not just to limit their exposure to the virus, but also for financial reasons.”

Insurers Are Reacting to Changing Consumer Habits

In addition to the pandemic’s immediate effects, researchers say the challenges it has posed “will have an outsized impact on how insurers must approach and interact with customers” in the future.

One example TransUnion cited was the effect on auto insurers. Of the 90% of respondents who said they owned or leased a car in 2020, 72% reported that they had either stopped driving their vehicle or used it less since March. In addition, 61% of those drivers said they would be willing to let their auto insurance provider collect real-time data on their vehicle usage if it meant a lower premium. That suggests a growing use of telematics technology in the months and years ahead.

Many auto insurers have already reacted to the change in driving habits by refunding a portion of their policyholders' premiums. Experts estimate that the auto insurance industry will return as much as $14 billion as a result.

The decline in commuting to work may endure post-pandemic: 37% of respondents said they would rather work from home in 2021, while 31% said they preferred a hybrid model that included sometimes going to the office.

The Insurance Industry Accelerates Its Digital Transition 

If the world wasn’t already extremely digital and connected, the pandemic has been a catalyst for a bigger push toward digitization.

According to surveys by the consulting firm Bain & Company, digital adoption in the insurance sector grew by approximately 20% globally in 2020, marking an increase of “almost four times the compound annual growth rate of the prior four years.” TransUnion’s researchers noted that the increased adoption of digital technology spans the entirety of the insurance industry, from “marketing to claims submissions to digital policy serving.”

Among respondents to the TransUnion survey, 47% said they filed an auto or property insurance claim in the last year, with 39% of that group saying they used an app on their smartphone, logged on to a web portal, or sent their claim via email. This trend followed along respondent preference lines: 32% said they preferred to contact their insurance provider via email, another 32% said they preferred to do it with a telephone call, and 18% said they preferred the insurer’s mobile app or website.

Mark McElroy, executive vice president and head of TransUnion’s insurance business, said the global outbreak of COVID-19 forced insurance providers to pivot to meet their consumers’ demands.

“COVID-19 pushed the need for nascent, innovative digital solutions and services to the forefront of standard insurance industry operation,” he said in a press release. “The unpredictable environment that lies ahead indicates consumers and businesses will increasingly rely on and choose insurers offering online resources and tools that can best meet their needs, particularly as digital adoption continues to grow.”