In the early 1900s, insurance companies and their agents organized a massive effort to protect Americans from tuberculosis.

Today, some executives in the insurance industry say insurers and advisors may have a role to play in protecting the baby boomers–and the profits of the boomers’ employers–from boomers’ vulnerability to disabling illnesses and injuries.

One important strategy is to promote effective wellness programs and another is to encourage flexible return-to-work programs, according to Kenneth Mitchell, a vice president at UnumProvident Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn.

When Mitchell and other researchers at UnumProvident sifted through the company’s claims for 2002 to 2004, they found that sex and age played an obvious role in determining which boomers were likely to suffer from disabling health problems. But many other factors, such as race, region and occupation, seemed to play little or no role in return-to-work rates.

“What was most important was whether [claimants] were able to get flexibility in making accommodations,” Mitchell says. “Lost time is more reflective of corporate policies than of types of impairments.”

Boomers, or workers who are now roughly between the ages of 40 and 60, make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

UnumProvident researchers did not explicitly identify a boomer demographic group, or subgroups, when they analyzed the company’s 2002-2004 claims, but most of the workers in the researchers’ 40-49 and 50-59 age groups were boomers.

Although boomers accounted for only 44% of the short-term disability claims studied, they accounted for about 62% of the long-term disability claims.

Pregnancy was the most common reason for long-term impairments among workers under 40.

Cancer was the most common reason for long-term impairments among the boomer claimants and back pain was the second most common reason.

Although some disabled boomer workers suffer from devastating health problems, in many cases, catastrophically disabled workers who have good attitudes and flexible employers have an easier time returning to work than workers with relatively mild disabilities and managers who insist that returning employees be capable of handling 100% of their old responsibilities, Mitchell says.

Hospitals, for example, can bring about big increases in return-to-work rates for boomer nurses simply by giving nurses help with lifting patients for a few months after they return, Mitchell says.

UnumProvident believes this sort of information is important to employers and producers as well as to return-to-work specialists, and the company is organizing a continuing education program for producers based on the 2002-2004 claims analysis, Mitchell says.

What can benefits advisors and other financial advisors do to help boomers and their employers cope with the effects of aging on disability claims?

Mitchell offers these suggestions:

o Remind boomer clients who are their own employers that they have an especially strong incentive to maintain their productivity.

o Offer group customers thorough (and potentially eye-opening) health risk appraisals.

o Urge group benefits clients to adopt wellness programs that include attractive incentives, such as discounts on health coverage, for active participation.

o For group coverage clients, pick programs that can meet boomers’ needs without appearing to single boomers out for special attention.

o Emphasize the importance of making serious efforts to help disabled boomers who want to return to work with lighter duties, more flexible work schedules or other accommodations.