Hundreds of disability insurance executives, consultants and producers will be meeting this week in Bonita Springs, Fla., for the JHA Dynamics of Disability Seminar.

JHA, Portland, Maine, a disability reinsurance and consulting firm, has turned the annual seminar into an unofficial convention for the disability insurance industry and established itself as a vigorous promoter of the importance of protecting American workers against disability.

The first general session at the conference will focus on a panel discussing the topic “Disability Insurance: Why It Matters.”

Due in part to the work over the years of JHA and its disability seminar participants, the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education, Washington, will be launching a disability insurance awareness month program in May. The program, modeled after LIFE’s Life Insurance Awareness Month program, will make aggressive efforts to reach out to the consumer media.

Meanwhile, the International DI Society, Seal Beach, Calif., a 2-year-old disability insurance group, is working with the American College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., to develop a disability professional designation program comparable to the Chartered Life Underwriter program, according to W. Harold Petersen, the group’s president.

JHA President Drew King says he is happy to see disability insurers and producers raising their profile.

Recently, “as an industry, we’ve recognized the need to advocate for our product,” King says.

Workshops at the JHA seminar will focus on topics such as the risk posed by influenza, the differences between large and small groups, and profiles of consumers who do and do not buy disability insurance.

JHA also will be reviewing results of its latest group disability rate management survey and whetting participants’ interest in results from the full-year 2006 market survey results, which are due in April.

The companies that participated in JHA’s mid-2006 survey reported that they increased the number of U.S. workers in group long-term disability insurance plans 3%, to 37 million, and increased the number in group short-term disability insurance plans 5%, to 16 million.

The cost of group LTD insurance increased just 2%, to $233 per life per year, while the cost of group STD insurance held steady, at $195 per life per year.

Because of major efforts to reach out to smaller employers, the average number of lives per new group LTD case fell about 20% during the first half of 2006, according to JHA researchers.

Disability insurers’ results depend in part on the job market and the aging of baby boomers, but also increasingly on the state of the health insurance market.

Health insurance “is not even a 900-pound gorilla anymore,” says Bob Taylor, a former JHA president and current executive director of the Council for Disability Awareness, Portland, Maine. “I call it the 1900-pound gorilla.”

Because of the skyrocketing cost of major medical insurance, “disability gets less and less shelf space,” says Christopher Jerome, senior vice president of disability group underwriting operations at UnumProvident Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn.

Health insurance rates increases appear to be moderating this year, and 2007 may be a year when disability insurers can lighten up, says Kevin Tierney, vice president of underwriting at Disability Risk Management Services, Westbrook, Maine.

“Negative trends are easier to see than positive trends,” but pricing and underwriting have been extremely tough in the past couple of years, and disability insurers have room to increase sales this year by loosening underwriting a bit without hurting profits, Tierney says.

Petersen says he sees signs that interest in both group and individual disability insurance is increasing. The number of carriers in the market dropped to 26 a few years back, from about 300 in the early 1990s, but now the number has increased to 32, and one of the new players in the market is a unit of American International Group Inc., New York, Petersen says.

One issue lurking in the background is states’ efforts to tighten standards for disability claim processing.

Caryn Montague, a North Miami Beach, Fla., disability insurance consultant and personal producing agent, says disability carriers seemed to go a bit easier on claimants about 20 months ago but now are about as tough as they were before.

Even when claimants suffer from severe, clear-cut disabilities such as paralysis of the legs, insurers seem to be paying much closer attention to signs that the claimants may have suffered from pre-existing conditions or might be able to handle their old jobs, Montague says.