Disability insurance players have been trying to pump new energy into the income protection market by starting new nonprofit organizations.

One existing group poised to benefit from the new interest in disability insurance could be the Disability Management Employer Coalition, San Diego.

Despite the group’s name, DMEC has long had strong ties to the insurance industry community, and now the group wants to do more to reach out both to agents and brokers who sell disability insurance and to smaller employers, according to DMEC Chief Executive Officer Marcia Carruthers.

This seems to be a good time for DMEC to seek a broader audience because health care providers, employers and insurers all are talking more about improving strategies for getting workers back to work, she says. “All 3 key stakeholders are working in the same direction.”

Carruthers, a DMEC co-founder who served for years as the group’s chief operating officer, took over from Sharon Kaleta, another DMEC co-founder, as CEO in 2006. Kaleta continues to be chairman of the DMEC board.

Kaleta and Carruthers formed DMEC in 1992 to promote the development of integrated disability management programs.

Today, the primary goal of DMEC and its 20 local chapters is to help employers save money and improve employees’ lives by getting employees who suffer illness, disability or other personal challenges back to productive employment. The group aims to help members address issues such as employees’ health, absences and productivity as well as disability.

The group also tries to give members an idea about how employers and government agencies are handling disability in other countries. DMEC has relationships with disability management organizations in Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The majority of DMEC’s 1,400 members are disability managers at companies with 1,000 or more employees, but the group also has membership categories for vendors and smaller employers, Carruthers says.

Relationships with insurance companies already are particularly strong, she adds.

“We feel like we have pretty close contact with their practice leaders,” Carruthers says.

Insurance company sponsors include carriers such as Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Hartford; MetLife Inc., New York; Standard Insurance Company, Portland, Ore.; and UnumProvident Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn.

DMEC is trying to recruit more midsize employers and their disability benefits advisors because it is seeing interest in active efforts to manage absence and disability costs migrate down to smaller employers, Carruthers says.

“Most best practices don’t require big investments,” she adds.

Carruthers also would like to attract more brokers and consultants, but, for now, she views them as a tough nut to crack.

Some of the sponsors are large brokers, and several brokers serve on the DMEC advisory board, but many individual brokers have trouble finding the time to attend in-person DMEC events, Carruthers says.

DMEC hopes to appeal to brokers and other harried participants in the disability insurance arena by holding more Web conference and teleconferences, she says.

One major in-person event is a behavioral risk management conference that is set to take place in Long Beach, Calif., in late March.

The conference will deal with the effects of psychological problems on productivity and recovery from physical disability, not simply clear-cut cases of disability resulting from psychological and psychiatric problems, Carruthers says.

Scheduled sessions include use of technology to manage psychiatric absence, the emotional risks facing survivors of cancer, the effectiveness of employee assistance programs at keeping employees at work, and assessment of the “bizarre employee.”

Human resources managers have always known that underlying psychological issues can make what appear to be cases involving physical disability especially difficult to close, Carruthers says.

Employees often fear that employers will try to take advantage of 2-year limits on benefits for “mental and nervous” claims by redefining problems of body as problems of the mind, but employer disability management staffers have seen the issue in a different light, Carruthers says.

Until recently, employers and independent disability plan administrators feared that referring an employee with a bad knee or severe back pain for psychological counseling would “open Pandora’s box” and lead to many problems, including psychiatric evaluations that could keep an employee out forever, Carruthers says.

Too often, she says, the disability managers’ attitude has been, “Best to not even go there.”

Today, however, “employers are finally ready to look at these kinds of things,” Carruthers says.