How to Navigate Insurance Before, During, and After a Disaster with Amy Bach Part 1

"You don't want to say to people, 'trust no one'. You want to say, 'trust but verify'. -Amy Bach

SERIES: Role of the Non-Profit

Getting insured is one of the best things you can do before a disaster strikes. It gives you the power to protect your family and property after the immediate dangers have passed. However, some people may try to take advantage of the victims while pretending to offer assistance. How do you know who to trust? In this episode, you will be empowered to successfully navigate the world of insurance with United Policyholders Founder, Amy Bach, Esq.. Amy talks about understanding insurance policy and the two things you will need for long-term recovery. Insurance companies are still businesses that operate for profit. Join in and discover practical steps you can take to make sure you are getting the most out of your insurance.  


  • 04:45: The World of Insurance
  • 13:20: Knowing Who to Trust 
  • 16:48: Beware of the "Heroes"
  • 20:21: The Truth About Insurance Companies  


02:48: "There's no more important decision than how to deploy your insurance funds. Until it happens to you, understanding your insurance policy is something that most of us don't have the time or won't take the time to do." -Jennifer Thompson

12:41: "After a disaster that has either severely damaged or destroyed your home, the one thing you need is money and reliable information." -Amy Bach

16:31: "Avoid the heroes because they will burn out and they will overpromise and underdeliver." -Jennifer Thompson

16:41: "We are not here as saviors. We're not here to lead your recovery. We are here to inform it, support it, and give you adaptable systems." -Jennifer Thompson

19:21: "You don't want to say to people, 'trust no one'. You want to say, 'trust but verify'. -Amy Bach

Meet Amy: 

Amy Bach

Amy Bach, a nationally recognized expert on insurance loss and recovery, has been a professional advocate for insurance policyholders since 1984 and an attorney since 1989. While practicing insurance regulatory law and representing clients in litigation matters, she co-founded United Policyholders in 1991. Bach migrated from the private practice of law in 2005 to become the organization's full-time Executive Director and primary spokesperson; shaping and overseeing the Roadmap to Recovery™, Roadmap to Preparedness, and Advocacy and Action programs. She is frequently interviewed in print and broadcast media, and the author of numerous legal and consumer publications including "The Disaster Recovery Handbook," "WISE UP: The Savvy Consumer's Guide to Buying Insurance," and tips and guides in the "UP Claim Help Library". Recognized by Money Magazine as a Money Hero, Bach has served as a public policy advisor to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners since 2009 and is in her second term as an appointed member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Insurance. She also currently serves on the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Disaster Preparedness and Response.








Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the How to disaster podcast. In this podcast, we've tried to show you how to recover, rebuild and reimagine. We do that through bringing new leaders, both emergent and formal in the space of disaster. We like to amplify and elevate good people, good ideas, and good systems in a way that hopefully you'll be able to take and adapt them to work for you. 

Today, I'm so pleased to have Amy Bach. Amy Bach is the founder and executive director of United Policyholders. United Policyholders is a nonprofit that helps people who are looking to buy insurance or navigate the insurance process post disaster. Amy has been on the forefront, not only helping people individually and communities recover, but also working to change the laws so that it's more fair. She is the place that you go if you want to know like, how do I advocate? How do I make sure that not only any kind of suffering that I have incurred doesn't happen to future people in future disasters, but also like, how do we make this space so much better to navigate? 

 "There's no more important decision than how to deploy your insurance funds. Until it happens to you, understanding your insurance policy is something that most of us don't have the time or won't take the time to do." -Jennifer Thompson

I really admire Amy for a couple of reasons. I think as you'll see, she has really great energy. She's been in this space for a long time. She's made a difference, and she is tenacious. I think so much of it comes from that energy. I really admire Amy because I know what it's like to serve a disaster affected community when everybody rushes in initially, and then they rush out about a year later, maybe 18 months. Very few organizations stay for the long term. United Policyholders do stay for the long term. So they're not only before, during and after a disaster, but they're still there when a lot of homeowners are finally looking at about a year, two years post disaster and making their decision to rebuild. And there's really no more important decision than how to deploy your insurance funds. Do you have enough? Chronic under insurance is just epic in this country. It's an extra, people don't think it's going to happen because they're normal. And until it happens to you, then really understanding your insurance policy is something that most of us don't have the time or won't take the time to do. 

I asked Amy to come on here today because we don't touch insurance in our organization. It's so complicated, and we know that she's good at it. So our business model has been, if you have any question about insurance or you want the laws changed, please go see Amy Bach in United Policyholders. 

I would like to welcome Amy to the podcast, and I'm so happy that she's here with us today. Once again, welcome Amy Bach to How To Disaster. In the intro, I actually talked about how insurance is super complicated, and it's a huge factor in disaster recovery. And in our organization, we absolutely don't touch it every single time. We just direct them over to you, so I wanted to have you on the podcast today to talk to us about United Policyholders, your origin story for the organization, but also like, how did you even get into this work? And then we'll go into the buckets of where you guys are very effective and making a big difference, not only for people who have already undergone disaster, but for people who are in disaster vulnerable areas, which is pretty much everyone at this point. 

Welcome, Amy.

Amy Bach: Thanks so much, Jennifer. It's really a pleasure to be on with you and discussing these important topics that we have up close and personal experience with.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So talk to us first about how the United Policyholders founded your mission. And then we'll start there, and then I'm going to get a little personal because I'm always interested in how people get into this.

Amy Bach: Right. So I am kind of an accidental disaster expert, and a very intentional insurance consumer experts. The organization was founded in 1991 by myself and somebody who was working for an insurance company as a claim adjuster for most of her career, and you kind of shorthand describe her as a whistleblower. So she came out of working for a major insurance company for her own career. She had gotten to the point where she was a claim supervisor. They had her working in the Santa Cruz Mountains after the Loma Prieta earthquake, that was in 1989. And she had her little team and they would be going in and inspecting people's damaged homes, determining whether or not the insurance company owed them money to repair their damage. And of course, in insurance, there's something called a deductible, which is a dollar amount that the homeowner has to absorb before the insurance company will cut a check. 

So what was happening was that this woman, I no longer felt that the insurance company was intentionally cheating people, she felt that they were doing that by not training their adjusters on how to find structural damage. Structural damage is usually more expensive than cosmetic. Cosmetic is slap a coat of paint on, call it a day. Structural is take off the drywall, see what's going on behind the wall, maybe do some engineering, a lot more expensive. 

So her feeling was even though they had entrusted her with determining how much the insurance company owe these people, she felt like she couldn't do her job because her team didn't have tools. They literally didn't have levels to see whether the home was still in alignment. So she went out and bought some levels. She made a little training tape, and the company penalized her, seize the tape. And so she quit, she came to a law office where I was working. And as a lawyer helping policyholders at the time, I was representing a family whose two year old that had fallen into their pool and had severe brain damage. They wanted to take care of the kid at home, but their insurance company said that you don't have enough home health coverage to supplement your personal time. I was battling that out for the family, trying to get the insurance company to pay what we thought they owed for the home health care, because my background was in public policy. 

Before I became a lawyer, I had been working for something called the New York State Consumer Protection Board. They put me as the insurance analyst at that time because no one else wanted to touch that boring topic. And I was game. And lucky for me, right after I had taken that gig working for this state agency under the first Governor Cuomo, insurance issues got very hot in New York and I got very involved in trying to protect consumers in the face of overreaching by insurance companies.I had seen in 1985 that there really wasn't a place for insurance consumers to go, to get the straight scoop on what their rights are, and translating insurance lingo so people would be able to actually understand their situation after they had a loss and figure out how much money their insurance company owed them, and then do whatever they needed to do to get paid. I, of course, when I was younger, I was a little bit more fiery and thought, oh, insurance companies are evil and all that. I don't feel that way at all anymore. 

Insurance companies are businesses, right? So really up came out to fill the void, there are lots of consumer groups out there talking about Lemon Laws, talking about just all kinds of consumer protections against credit card fraud, identity theft and all that. But when it comes to insurance, it's got its own kind of world. And I thought, you know what? We need a consumer group that just focuses on insurance. But when I got together with [inaudible], then we sort of had this kind of nuts and bolts idea of, okay, insurance consumers need a voice, and they need where decisions are being made in legislatures, in the courts, but they also need a voice in the cleaning process.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: My dog is snoring which happens on a lot of podcasts, keep going. Go ahead.

Amy Bach: There I am with my day job, but with this already, I considered myself and have been a professional insurance consumer advocate since 1984. So everything I've done has been to kind of get better at that, to really understand how insurance works, and then be able to offer consumers practical solutions that are realistic. Because the insurance industry is tremendous, very resourced, very complicated. There's many, many players. There is one insurance voice, there's many. So right when I got introduced to [inaudible], she was kind of looking to do something to help consumers on the post disaster side, and I was looking to do something other than litigation, which is a slog and wasn't really the best use of my talents, we decided to form a nonprofit. We literally had just picked the name when the Oakland Fire Hack. And at that time in 1991, that was the biggest urban structure destroying wildfire in history because it destroyed a lot of high net worth homes in the Berkeley hills, lots of professors, professionals, lawyers, it was a community that was right for organizing and right for helping. So from the beginning, from the time United Policyholders was formed, our primary focus has been on helping make insurance work for people who have been impacted by disasters and with a special focus on wildfires. That's a long answer.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, it's actually, but I think it's an answer that's worthy of the cause. One of the things that I would always like people to see is, you can see a gap, and you saw a huge gap. And then if your talents can actually step in and fill that gap, and you have the talent, inclination, that is wonderful. Executing it is tough, though. And executing it for a really long time is even more difficult because you have to have a mindset of constantly learning, pivoting, figuring it out, and listening. And one of the things that I said in the intro was that, when disaster, everyone rushes in, and love is in the air. And then a year later, everybody starts to back away, step away. And 18 months later, they're pretty much back to doing what they were doing. And then that's when you have the people who are actually rebuilding their homes, if that's their choice, or still negotiating with their insurance companies. In my case, we look up, and you're still there. So you're not only there before, you are there during and you're there for the long term, and there's a huge dearth in that area. So I don't think that was too long of an answer. This is complicated, and it's really important. So I can just even be quiet for the next 45 minutes listening.

"After a disaster that has either severely damaged or destroyed your home, the one thing you need is money and reliable information." -Amy Bach

Amy Bach: Jennifer, you know, because the focus of the ReBuild North Bay Foundation had been like, let's get money in people's hands so that they can do repairs or rebuilding, which is a very honest recognition of the reality that after a wildfire, after a disaster that has either severely damaged or destroyed your home, the one thing you need is money. And then the other thing you need is information, reliable information.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: All the way into reliable information that we talked about, why is that so important? Because one of the reasons I know, I can trust your organization. So I have zero issue just being like, oh, you have an insurance question? Go see United Policyholders, that's who you need to see you, not us. Not anybody else, go see you. So talk about why that's so important, especially for a community or people who've just undergone trauma.

Amy Bach: The aftermath of disasters, some people have described it as depending on the size. But as the circus comes to town, and by that, I mean, people will come in, contractors will come in, public adjusters will come in, entrepreneurs will come in, and all kinds of personalities surface in the aftermath of a disaster. And meanwhile, there's the survivors, the victims just kind of going, okay, who can I trust? For our organization, we have worked very hard to find the people that you can trust. So we always start with the government, because of course, the local government has the responsibility for public safety, and has the resources to communicate with all the impacted households.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Often, they don't know how to do it, though, because they've never undergone it themselves before. So having an organization like yours come in, and also helps your trusted partners navigate something that they may have never done before, which is not the case in Sonoma County, but it isn't the case in a lot of places. That was the case in 2017. So I just want to say that a reciprocal relationship with the public sector should be your first line resources, but you also provide a trusted partnership to them. So I just have to highlight that because I think it's incredibly important.

Amy Bach: Yes, thank you. Again, it's interesting when you look at how our model developed. We partner with the City of Oakland and Alameda County, first and foremost. Generally, there's going to be an assistance center that gets set up. The sort of post wildfire playbook has really developed a lot over the time that our organization has been around. So there really is kind of a playbook. I mean, on the other hand, there are all kinds of factors that make each disaster different. And there's the saying, every disaster is local. And by that, the way I interpret that is, who's taking a leadership role from the government? Who's taking a leadership role from the philanthropic sector? And who's taking a leadership role from the construction sector? The Builders Exchange, the Builders Association, those are going to be different. We had a situation in Colorado where we came in after a wildfire, and the wildfire had hit the county and the city. So some houses were destroyed in the county and some of the city, very much like Sonoma. So who's the boss? Is it the county commissioners? Is it the mayor of the city? Are they going to get along? Are they going to play nicely? And those things really make a difference. So in this Colorado situation, there was bad blood between the city, the county and the county official that we partnered with. We will always look for the partner who's grounded, who's humble enough to know what they don't know, and who keeps the focus on what matters, which is clearly--

"Avoid the heroes because they will burn out and they will overpromise and underdeliver." -Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Like to say avoid the heroes, avoid them because they will burn out, they will over promise and under deliver. We're always like, we are not heroes, we are not saviors, we're not here to lead your recovery. We are here to inform it, support it and give you adaptable systems.

"We are not here as saviors. We're not here to lead your recovery. We are here to inform it, support it, and give you adaptable systems." -Jennifer Thompson

Amy Bach: Exactly. Exactly. And I really appreciate that. You see that. I have many conversations with a county commissioner, for example. We'll connect with somebody like Doug Teeter in Butte County who lost his home in the campfire. That was one of the first calls that I made after the campfire, 18,000 structures down. A supervisor from Napa that we had worked well with made the call to her colleague who was a Butte County Supervisor. We had a great chat. He was one of those people that can simultaneously handle their own personal recovery and helping others. That's kind of a post disaster, Jim, that we always look for, and he was one.  But back to this Colorado story, our county commissioner that we were partnering with out there, when she went to tour, some burned sites that were on city, that were within the city limits, the city officials threatened her and said: "You're out of your jurisdiction, and we're gonna call the sheriff if you don't leave." Which to me was sort of like, that was kind of rock bottom of the example of people not cooperating and not playing well. Another example is for profit entrepreneurs that will come in and say, Oh, I came down from Canada, and we've got the solution, we're going to be your hero. And people are like, okay, wow, great. And the next thing you know, somebody has hired this guy, and he's skipped town, and the guy's $80,000 out of pocket and doesn't have a house. The guy that said that he was going to be his hero turned out to be more than zero.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: This happened after our fires. We had a guy come from Canada from forestry. It's the guy, right? Met with everybody, I sat down with him twice and he was very aggressive. Like, oh, I'm going to show you all of ours, here's our website, I wouldn't look at this website, they were selling basements. And I saw I was like, that's it. That means he doesn't know anything about our recovery. He is not a savior. And I told people, step away. But that kind of thing that we're talking about, I'm glad to never--

"You don't want to say to people, 'trust no one'. You want to say, 'trust but verify'. -Amy Bach

Amy Bach: We are talking about the same thing. Because when I said people talk about the circus coming to town, we spent a lot of time, United Policyholders trying to put things in a way that an overwhelmed, traumatized person can absorb, and striking the right balance between optimism and warning as a challenge. You don't want to say to people, trust no one. You want to say, trust, but verify. And it's hard because people come in with these sales pitches, and they sound great. Oh, we know how to do this. We're gonna make it easy for you. Well, what more does a disaster victim want to hear, that somebody is gonna make it easy. Great. So we're always trying to like, okay, we want to keep our minds open if somebody has a great idea. I don't want to say, no. On the other hand, there's really nothing new under the sun when it comes to, what does it take to get from standing in the rubble of your birth lot? To sit in a new living room, what does it take? That's what we define as long term recovery.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: How do we get you all the way home. And in a way that's respectful and responsible, and not overly prescriptive.

Amy Bach: Prescriptive is the key word, because there's no one path that works for everybody. And that's what we have learned over the years. I've not seen a magic wand yet. I've seen people say, Oh, I got lucky. My adjuster was really nice, and they cut me a check, no strings attached. I just took that check, and I went on, I didn't have to deal with the insurance company anymore. That happens all the time. Sometimes, insurance companies come through great. Our goal is to have, of course, them all come through great all the time. I don't think that's ever going to happen because the reality is that the insurance system has, insurance companies have a very serious kind of conflict of interest when it comes to large losses. Because the auto claims 5,000 bucks, no problem out the door, we're done. You want a million dollars out of an insurance company, you're gonna have to jump through some hoops. And we are here to help people jump through those hoops. If the hoops are too big, unreasonable or unfair, we try to remove them. We're here to give people, our tagline is empowering the insured. 

So we have a pretty specific focus on whether you have insurance, we want you to get every dime. We want to help you get through the paint process as painlessly as possible, but we need you to be realistic about the fact that insurance companies, they're not social workers, their ads are ads. They don't have a magic wand, they are not your neighbor, they are not your friend, their business. And they have shareholders, and they have their own nuts. They've got to pay their employees. So they've got shareholders that they're responsible to, they've got their own financial needs they need to meet, and then they have their policyholders, their customers, right? Those three masters that insurance companies serve.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Is a whole other thing. We don't have to get too deep into it here. But until I vacationed once in Bermuda, I didn't even know what reinsurance was. And I ended up at a wedding with people who were really, they were reinsurance people. So there is a whole other hidden, not like in a negative way, just in a way that most like from a policyholder. You don't really think about it until the reinsurance companies are saying they're not going to insure the insurance companies because of the risk.

Amy Bach: That's right. In fact, reinsurance being insurance that insurance companies buy basically for their really high dollar exposures. The reinsurance industry is driving some of what's going on in California, with people having trouble keeping their home insurance and not being able to afford the home insurance.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you for joining us, for part one of my long and very interesting interview with Amy Bach, the founder and executive director of United Policyholders. Insurance is at least 40 to 50% of how a community recovers. So in this case, we are going to break this episode into two parts. I hope that you'll join us for the second part where Amy and I go a little more deeper into the question of, what is needed in a disaster? How can we better respond, collaborate and prepare for disasters as we go? So thank you again for joining us, and please join us for part two.