More than a year after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast, homeowners and businesses are still in the process of rebuilding  and recovering from the storm’s damage. Unfortunately, many of those affected by Sandy have found it’s taking longer than expected to receive the funds they need to get back on their feet. In many cases, the expected source of those funds is an insurance company.
While it’s easy to demonize insurance providers for not paying the claims of affected businesses, that’s often an unfair characterization. Here’s a look at why it sometimes takes a long time to receive insurance benefits after a covered event and how you can ensure that, if you’re ever struck with a disaster, your business gets its claims covered in a timely fashion.
Why Won’t the Insurance Company Pay Me?
This is a common chorus among business owners affected by serious property damage like that caused by Sandy. And it’s no wonder: In the aftermath of a major storm or other property event, emotions run high. For small-business owners, their life’s work may be lying in tatters at their feet.
When your insurance company denies a claim you submit, it can feel personal.
In reality, claim denials are pure business. Take, for instance, this tangled insurance claim denial  related to Sandy. Some hotels submitted business interruption claims that were denied because the insurance companies couldn’t agree on whether power outages caused the interruption or they were caused by a flood (not covered) or an explosion (covered).
In less severe disasters, claim denials are often a matter of a business owner’s failure to adhere to the byzantine claims-submission process insurance companies mandate. Think, for example, of swiping a debit card backwards at an ATM. Your card may be denied over and over until you match the magnetic strip to the reader – once you do that, voilà. You can access your money.
Before you follow those rules, though, it’s easy to become frustrated when the machine won’t give you the cash that’s rightfully yours.
Key Steps to Accessing Insurance Claims Payments
So how can you access insurance benefits when you need them most? Admittedly, it’s a little more complicated than flipping a debit card around. But once you do adhere to the insurance company’s rules, you should find that your claims are covered exactly as your policy said they would be.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting your business insurance claims covered as quickly and efficiently as possible:
Prepare Ahead of Time
The most impactful things you can do for getting claims covered happen long before a storm strikes. Preparation includes taking pictures of your property and inventory, noting serial numbers for major equipment, keeping a copy of your insurance policy somewhere outside your office, and programming your insurance agent’s number into your phone.
Having all these things handy will make the claims process much easier and quicker.
Read Your Policy’s Fine Print
Not sure what kinds of events your insurance policy covers? Then break out your paperwork and get ready to dig through some jargon. Or call your agent and ask for a detailed run-through of your coverages and exclusions.
It’s better to find out that you’re not covered in the event of a flood now than when your storeroom is submerged in a foot of standing water.
Update Your Policy as Needed
If you and your agent discover coverage gaps, update your policy to eliminate them. It’s also essential to update your policy any time your business evolves, whether that means adding new services, selling new products, expanding or updating your offices, investing in new equipment, hiring new employees, or anything else.
If you don’t update your policy and you’re hit with an incident, you may not be covered.
Document the Damage
When disaster hits your business, your instinct is likely to get in there and start cleaning up. But doing so without documenting the worst of the damage can prevent you from receiving full benefits from your insurance provider. After any claims incident – whether it’s the theft of a laptop or a major storm – take a moment to photograph the affected area or damaged items.
This will make the claims adjustment process go more quickly so you can receive benefits as soon as possible.
Contact Contractors and Other Repair Professionals
Following a major disaster, it may be wise to contact the contractors who can get your office up and running before calling your insurance company. Why? Because there are only so many roof repair and construction companies in your area, and after a major disaster, they’ll be inundated with repair requests.
Getting yours in as quickly as possible will ensure you’re at the front of the line for getting your building back in working order.
Contact Your Insurance Agent
This call should happen right away – directly after making calls to contractors. Insurance companies are known for efficiently getting claims adjustors to disaster areas to process damage and determine what needs to be done. The sooner you contact your agent, the sooner you can start the process that ends with receiving a check to repair or replace what you’ve lost.
Keep in mind, too, that contacting your agent is only the beginning of a process that can take some time.
Get an Independent Appraiser’s Estimate
Chances are, your insurance company will lowball you on a repair estimate, based on their appraiser’s assessment of your damage. Why? Because insurance companies are also running a business. They have to think about their bottom line, which is helped by paying as little in claims as possible. Rather than thinking of them as the bad guy, recognize that this is how their business model works and be ready to assert the needs and interests of your business.
This starts with the independent appraiser’s estimate, which will likely be higher than the insurance company’s.
Be Prepared to Negotiate
So how do you convince your insurance provider to pay more than it initially offers? The key is in documentation. Provide estimates from your appraiser, estimates from the contractors who will do repairs, documentation of the condition of your property before the damage, documentation of the damage, and any other materials that can support your case.
Making your case carefully will take some time and effort. But it will pay off when you receive adequate benefits to complete the repairs you need to get back on your feet.
Treat Your Insurance Policy as a Gym Membership
Yes, you have to pay for your insurance policy. But merely having a piece of paper in your safe won’t protect your business any more than having a gym membership will magically make you fit.
Just as you have to play an active role in getting in shape, you need to play an active role in ensuring that your insurance policies are suited to your current risk exposures and your claims are filed according to the rules so you end up protected when you most need coverage.
The good news is that, just as trainers can demystify the various weight machines and cardio classes to help you achieve your fitness goals, an insurance agent can guide you through the processes of buying the right policies, updating those to match your changing business, and filing any claims that arise.
Recovery  Photo via Shutterstock