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A Greater Purpose

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She says, with conviction in her voice, that hers is a rewarding and compelling business. After a half-hour’s conversation, you’re convinced.

Mainly, she talks about disability, the side of the business that most fires her passion, and where her company all but rules, ranking second in new sales and third in in-force premiums. But as executive vice president in charge of all insurance-related group sales at Hartford Life, Lizabeth Zlatkus has a few other passions as well.

Take absence management and lost time issues. Not new concerns, but the ones she goes to straight away when you ask about the top challenges in her group benefits division.

It’s tough, she says, to get employers to understand the true cost of people out of work. Not just disability and workers’ comp costs, but the cost of hiring and training replacements, lost productivity as a new person gets up to speed, duplicated benefits, and the stress of not having trained people in place.

Yet, she says, 64% of U.S. companies don’t consistently track unscheduled absences and an equal number don’t know what their absence rate is or how their experience compares with competitors’.

“It’s been proven a hundred times over,” she says, “that if you bring a person back to work who is trained, it’s far less costly, even if you have to make some accommodation.”

Then there are new regulatory challenges, notably the Family Leave Medical Act, voted by 55% of 237 participants in a recent HRnext Web poll as most likely to propel HR types to the closest aspirin bottle–but also to their disability carriers to do their FLMA administration.

Also on Zlatkus’s radar are continued low interest rates. “In the old days, as interest rates rose it helped cover the increased costs of disability and carriers could keep their premiums flat,” she says. “Now, declining rates put pressure on margins, causing increased insurance rates, even if the underlying experience isn’t getting worse.”

She also has an eye trained on a low unemployment rate, which has companies “dying for trained, talented people, which motivates them more to bring people back to work” and “to keep their benefits program rich.” This benefits many Hartford product lines, she adds, but how it plays out as we head into recession is anyone’s guess.

Her top challenge, she says, is having employers understand what they’re buying. They may examine cost, she says, but it’s hard for employers to evaluate carriers to see how well they return people to work, how comprehensive are their programs and how sophisticated their claims management.

There’s the further question of what employers really want. They want to bring people back, but they lack the tools and processes to do it, Zlatkus says. And they don’t understand all the steps that go into managing disability and balancing the need to pay the disabled and get them back with the need to ensure no one defrauds the system.

“One thing we’ve not seen are those millions of people with disabilities who are not working though statistics say over half of them want to work,” she says.

Which gets her talking about Hartford’s “abilities” program, to which she is so fervently committed that in 1999 she was named to The President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. The philosophy is brought to life by The Hartford Team Ability, world-class athletes with disabilities who hold jobs, compete and champion the abilities, rather than the disabilities, of the disabled, a notion now commonplace but which Hartford pioneered in 1993.

The company continues to learn about the power of attitude on the ability to recover and return to work, she says. At first, it sponsored blind and paralyzed athletes and said, in effect, “Look what they can do, so don’t take the attitude that if someone has an illness they can’t work ever again.”

Still, that’s just a part of it, because this doesn’t affect what happens in the claims department, where the need is changing practices and tools to focus on the employee and the steps needed to be taken to change attitude as soon as he or she becomes disabled.

“We’ve learned a lot, but it’s not an easy process,” she tells me. “You and I know that’s not the way humans are.”

She says they used to ask doctors, “Is this person disabled?” and found that their focus was on what the patient couldn’t do. Now they ask different questions. Can the patient walk? Can she see? Can he speak? Can she lift? What they can do.

“This business is very compelling,” she says, because it’s about helping employers with productivity and helping employees get their lives back. “Things are important when they affect society and what we do really does. There are a lot of people not working that could be, and we need more labor.”

Beyond that, she says, the employees in her division will tell you that it’s not just about coming to work every day. “There’s to it all,” says Lizabeth Zlatkus.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 21, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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