A leading financial services company has launched a week-long school to train producers and account managers on group disability insurance income products and strategies for leveraging trends in the group DI marketplace.

Created by The Hartford Financial Services Group, Hartford, Conn., the carrier-neutral Vault program teaches the elements of the group disability income business, such as contracts, underwriting, pricing and risk management. Students who complete the course can take an exam leading to The National Underwriter Company’s new group benefits disability specialist (GBDS) designation.

“Most producers spend less than 10% of their time on ancillary products like group disability income insurance,” says Steve McConnell, an assistant vice president at Hartford. “[The Vault program] will help them to rapidly get up the learning curve on what the products are, what they do and how to select solutions to match the client’s needs.”

The initiative is designed to serve producers and account managers with varying levels of experience in the DI business. Among other topics covered during the five days of the course, students will learn about voluntary/consumer-driven solutions, strategies used for managing a client’s risk profile and the 10 most important questions to ask a disability carrier.

Among the last: What claim model does the carrier use and how often has the model changed during the past 10 years? A spokesperson for Hartford notes there are many successful claim models among carrier groups, each with its own advantages. The claim model can impact the policy premium, employee satisfaction and how fast claimants return to work.

“How the claims process is administered is where 99% of the business works–or doesn’t work,” says McConnell.

Other concepts covered during the course include credibility and its application in disability pricing; tax implications; confidentiality regulations; the theory of long-term disability reserving; cash flow options for disability plans; and tactics for dealing with voluntary/consumer disability plans.

Three sessions of the producer school are planned for the remainder of 2006, including May 15-19, Oct. 2-6 and Nov. 6-10. To be held in the Hartford, Conn., metro area, the program is priced at $2,495 per student. Tuition includes classroom instruction and materials, National Underwriter’s GBDS literature and self-study quizzes, as well as proctoring and grading of the GBDS exam by Hartford’s instructors.

The tuition also covers a graduation dinner with members of Hartford’s Group Benefits Division senior leadership team, travel to and from the program within the U.S., lodging and meals, access to Hartford subject matter experts/instructors for consultation after the program, plus filing fees and certificates for continuing education credits.

The GBDS mark is the latest of three professional designations that The National Underwriter Company and The Hartford Financial Services Group jointly deliver. The other two are personal lines coverage specialist (PLCS) and commercial lines coverage specialist (CLCS), both of which encompass coursework in the property-casualty space.

McConnell says CE credits earned on completing the coursework will meet most states’ annual continuing education requirements. The program is approved for up to 35 CE credits.

“There are a lot of professional designations, but none of them really focuses exclusively on group disability the way our producer school does,” says McConnell. “That’s why brokers really need help with group DI, which is such an important part of the employer’s and employee’s protection portfolio.”

Students receive an ROI calculator to assess the program’s effectiveness. McConnell says the 49 students who participated in one of three pilot programs in 2005 indicated they expected to earn between five and 10 times their investment in the program.

Among the pilots’ participants was Ryan Gowin, an employee benefits consultant for Seattle, Wash.-based Kibble and Prentice. Gowin says the program was “well worth the time and investment,” as he now is able to present DI solutions more effectively to clients–and win new business.

“One of my prospects, a business owner, previously didn’t offer voluntary or employer-paid disability income insurance,” says Gowin. “When I discussed the importance of having this benefit, it really struck a chord with the CEO. The company now offers employer-paid, short- and long-term DI.”

Starting in September 2006, Hartford plans to take the producer school to other metro areas, potentially including San Francisco, says McConnell. He adds the company also is considering offering the coursework to individual companies’ brokers as well as a self-paced program.