What a bite: Bed bugs continue to plague U.S., prompt insurance purchases

They’re small, they feed on the blood of humans and animals, and they may be taking up residence in your bed.

Appearances of bed bugs, which are oval-shaped, flat insects that draw blood from sleeping people and animals, are on the rise. In 2011, nearly every pest management professional across the country had encountered a bed bug infestation within the past 12 months, according to a survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky.

Of the survey respondents, 99 percent reported an encounter with bed bugs during the past 12 months, compared with 95 percent who reported bed bug encounters in a 2010 survey.

Although prominent places such as New York City and, more recently, the University of Nebraska have been spotlighted for their bed bug troubles, experts are quick to point out that the problem is widespread. “It’s not isolated to one town, state or even country,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association.

bed_bugsAs a result of the influx in cases involving bed bugs, insurance companies now offer policies directed at certain issues related to the critters. These policies generally are geared toward organizations that could be hit with major costs associated with bed bugs, such as businesses, apartment complexes, hotels and universities. Homeowners must foot the bed bug bill on their own. Getting rid of bed bugs – and other vermin – is considered part of home maintenance and typically not covered by a home insurance policy.

Critter causes

Bed bugs first came to the United States with early colonists and thrived for decades. By the 1950s, however, thanks to new pest control products and the use of vacuums and washing machines, bed bugs were nearly eradicated.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when bed bugs started popping up again. Experts point to an increase in international travel, together with the growing resistance of bed bugs toward various treatments, as two of the reasons behind the resurgence.

During the past several years, the economic downturn also may have been a contributing factor. “A lot of companies are finding themselves without budgets to take care of these problems,” says Brian DiCicco, director of Pest Management Inc., a pest control company in Texas. “If it doesn’t get treated, the problem gets worse.”

The unemployed, who often can’t afford to treat bed bugs, may opt for public transportation – and pick up bugs on the way, says Michael Colongione, president of Gotcha! Bedbug Inspectors, a pest control company serving the New York City area.

“Bed bugs are natural hitchhikers and love sneakers and shoelaces, jeans -- anything they can attach themselves on to,” he says. “You’ll find most in highly populated, dense areas with high turnover rates.” Think buses, restaurants, hotels, college dorms and movie theaters.

Treatment costs

Bed bug treatment expenses can vary greatly, depending on the property and infestation level, Colongione says. In New York, treating bed bug infestations can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Multiunit complexes may take a harder hit than single-family residences when it comes to treatment expenses. DiCicco cites incidences of 400-unit apartment buildings with more than 250 bed-bug-filled units. “It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-term care to get those properties under control,” he says.

For hotels, costs can rise even more. In addition to the amount spent on treating infested areas, these properties lose revenue during the treatment process.

Insurance solutions

Insurance companies now offer coverage for bed bugs in certain circumstances. Here are five things you need to know about insurance and bed bugs:

1. College students may sleep better with insurance. The Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Nebraska recently bought insurance for bed bugs. The policy covers the cost of exterminating the bugs after an infestation, and helps with expenses for living away from the fraternity during bed bug treatment. The policy also covers liability costs if someone files a bed-bug-related lawsuit against the fraternity.

2. Hotels can reduce bed bug risks. Insurance policies for hotels offer reimbursement for bed bug elimination services and lost revenue, as well as discounts for bug-fighting products such as mattress encasements.

3. Coverage is available for frequent business travelers. Companies with employees who frequently are on the road can buy policies to cover treatment costs for the traveler’s home, clothing and work space. A policy also may help with temporary living expenses if the employee must leave the home while it's being treated.

4. Landlords may have affordable options. Landlords and property managers can buy insurance to cover bed bug treatments for an entire complex. For a 100-unit apartment complex, that cost can be as little as $2 to $4 a month per unit, says John Lafakis, senior vice president at insurance brokerage Willis North America.

5. Prevention is key. The best way to combat a bed bug infestation is to prevent one in the first place, Colongione says. When staying at a hotel, keep clothing in your suitcase. Inspect all packages that come into your home, and invest in encasements for mattresses, box springs and pillowcases. In addition, consider carrying a bed bug spray such as Pronto Plus with you, especially when you're staying in hotels and other places away from home.

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