Regulatory attacks on disability insurance ebb and flow, but consumer indifference to the product endures.

That’s the picture that emerged here at the 14th annual disability insurance seminar organized by JHA, Portland, Maine.

JHA, a unit of General Re Life Corp., Stamford, Conn., organizes these seminars to promote its disability consulting, research and reinsurance services. The 350 attendees at the latest conference included insurance company executives from all over the world, executives from competing disability insurance consulting firms, marketers from companies that serve disability insurers and top disability producers and analysts.

In 2006, worries about regulatory investigations and settlements involving issues such as claim review standards and broker compensation cast a pall over discussions.

This year, conversation focused more on preliminary results from JHA’s 2006 group disability market survey. Early results suggest that enrollment has grown but that full-year sales may have dropped for the first time since JHA began conducting the survey, JHA President Drew King told attendees.

“We’re seeing a workforce that’s crying for some way to protect their income, yet we’re struggling,” King said. “We’re motoring along here in another year of slow to moderate growth.”

The average U.S. household with at least one credit card carries more than $9,000 in credit card debt, and the deterioration of the Great Society social welfare programs of the 1960s makes preparing for disability more important, Robert Taylor, executive director of the Council for Disability Awareness, Portland, Maine, said during a panel discussion about why disability insurance matters.

“The product that you have is very, very important,” Alan Knight, a former long-term disability insurance claimant who spoke for insureds, told carrier executives in the audience. “It literally saved my family.”

But employers are spending more than $2 per hour of work on health insurance and only 4 cents per hour on long-term disability benefits, according to government statistics quoted in a JHA presentation.

Despite the need for disability insurance and the low cost, insurers are having a hard time making the benefit as appealing to younger workers as frills such as services that pick up dry cleaning, King said.

Some seminar attendees asked whether insurers could spend more to educate the public, either on their own or through the CDA, but King and Taylor noted that educational advertising is expensive and that the effects are difficult to quantify.

Carmen Danner, a bank human resources executive who represented employers on the panel, said disability insurers should provide more educational materials. “It comes down to communication,” Danner said. “We’re all providing [group disability], but we’re not really educating employees about what a wonderful benefit it is.”