By Allison Bell
Insurance agents who visit the offices of group disability clients are seeing more workers who are really fat. And group disability insurers are seeing the claims.
The percentage of U.S. workers who are obese has skyrocketed over the past 40 years, and more than half of the workers filing disability claims with the Kansas City, Mo.-based benefits arm of Assurant Inc., New York, are obese, according to Dr. Polly Galbraith, the units medical director.
A few workers file claims simply because they are so heavy that, even if they are in reasonably good health despite their weight, they have a hard time functioning in an ordinary workplace. “There are a significant number that cant be weighed in a normal doctors office,” Galbraith notes.
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Assurant might have to help persuade those claimants employers to change uncomfortable workstations and buy bigger chairs, Galbraith says.
Assurant gets many more claims from obese workers who suffer from diabetes, heart disease, back pain and other health problems partly because of their weight and their eating habits. Internal Assurant statistics show that the obese claimants “dont recover as fast,” Galbraith says. “Their period of recovery is much longer.”
Several recent major studies have reviewed the effects of rising U.S. obesity rates on life insurers. Swiss Reinsurance Company, Zurich, has suggested that rising disability rates could be hurting life insurance profits by slowing improvements in mortality rates.
Group disability insurers have an even greater interest in rising obesity rates than group life insurers do, because obesity is more likely to lead to disability than to death, says Larry Schneider, a disability insurance broker who owns the Disability Insurance Resource Center, Albuquerque, N.M.
Insurers insist that producers include the height and weight of every employee on the typical group disability application form.
If underwriters notice one obese employee in a group of 30 or 40 healthy, desirable employees, they probably will offer the employer coverage, but, if several employees are obese, “they could turn the group down,” Schneider says.
In some cases, an insurer might offer coverage to the group but insist on charging the obese workers a higher rate or excluding the obese workers from the plan, Schneider adds.
He points out that agents who visit an employer are supposed to be the “eyes and ears” of the insurance company. An agent who visits an employer, sees a large number of obese workers and fails to warn a group disability insurer about the employers obesity problem may be guilty of saddling the insurer with a pig in a poke, he says.
In some cases, a group disability producer could give an employer friendly advice about the value of comprehensive weight-loss programs and the effects of high obesity rates on access to group disability coverage, but “it has to be done very diplomatically,” Schneider says.
Today, however, the typical group disability producer is unlikely to give the employer any formal, systematic advice about coping with worker obesity.
“Its not our responsibility,” Schneider says.
But many of the companies that insure and administer group disability programs do seem to be interested in playing a more active role in fighting obesity, says Karen English, a partner at Spring Consulting Group L.L.C., Boston.
“Some of the disability carriers are really increasing their capabilities with respect to data,” and one possible use of that analysis is to prevent and manage obesity before it leads to claims, English says.
A unit of MetLife Inc., New York, recently published “A Year In the Life Of A Million American Workers,” a health and disability almanac by Dr. Ronald Leopold, the national medical director of the companys disability insurance unit. A section at the end of the book discusses the role that MetLife and other large life insurers played in overcoming tuberculosis, diphtheria and other ills that once plagued the United States.
Could group disability insurers mount a similar campaign against obesity?
Possibly, Leopold says, but the problem is that, when it comes to weight, “solutions are very employer-specific.”
“Whats good for one [employer] is not necessarily good for all,” Leopold says.
Some of the barriers to fighting the obesity epidemic include employee defensiveness, long-term changes in the typical American diet, some employees belief that they are too burdened by work and family obligations to take proper care of themselves, health privacy laws and regulations that limit employers ability to gather and use employee health information, and the cruel fact that losing weight and keeping it off can be very difficult.
Differences that affect wellness plan designs can include factors such as where most workers go to eat and whether a facility is in a setting that is better suited to jogging clubs or indoor exercise programs.