A leading financial services company is extending to locations nationwide an initiative to train producers and account managers on group disability income insurance 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 group disability income insurance products, such as contracts, underwriting, pricing and risk management. Students who complete the course can take an exam leading to The National Underwriter Company’s group benefits disability specialist (GBDS) designation.

The Vault program’s educational seminars, launched in 2005, were held in Hartford through last year. The school is being extended to 6 cities in 2007, including Maitland, Fla.; Palm Springs, Calif.; Avon, Conn.; Philadelphia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Chicago.

“We see this program as an opportunity to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” says Bob Reiff, a vice president and director of distribution and field service at the group benefits division at The Hartford Financial Services Group, Hartford, Conn. “[The program] also demonstrates our expertise with employers and producers who are looking to do group disability income insurance or are looking for a carrier to place business through.”

The three-and-one-half-day seminars cover group short- and long-term disability income insurance contracts, benefits, underwriting and pricing. The course provides instruction on how to identify trends affecting clients’ productivity and risk profile, and develop appropriate solutions and plan designs. Producers also learn how to navigate contract language, claims and service considerations, and how to diagnose and service clients’ group disability needs and goals.

They learn, too, about questions that advisors should ask a group disability insurance carrier to determine a product’s fit with the client’s needs. Example: What claim model does the carrier use and how often has the model changed during the past 10 years?

A spokesperson for The 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.

“The course modules provides the fundamentals about group disability and specifics related to disability coverage,” says Reiff. “Advisors also learn how best to evaluate existing coverage or assist a producer in actually placing coverage.”

Reiff says that CE credits earned on completing the coursework will meet most states’ annual continuing education requirements. The program is approved for up to 30 CE credits for life and health licenses. He adds that Hartford Financial is currently working with National Underwriter on logistics to enable advisors to take the exam on-line

Tuition for the Vault program is $1,595 per producer, which includes classroom instruction and course materials, meals and refreshments, proctoring and grading of the of National Underwriter’s GBDS exam, plus state filing and certification fees for continuing education credits.

In January of 2007, National Underwriter released a self-study version of the course material. Bill Weinhoff, director of insurance training at National Underwriter, observes that while advisors participating in the Vault program receive preferential treatment and pricing, the company developed the coursework and designation to appeal to the broader community of independent advisors.

“This coursework is very much intended for the industry at-large,” says Weinhoff. “Although we worked with Hartford to develop the curriculum, our intention was to provide a generic and balanced treatment of group disability products, without preference to a particular insurer’s product line or marketing approach. [The GBDS] is an at-large designation.

“Some of the bigger carriers run decent internal training programs,” he adds. “But no other program offers a comprehensive and carrier-neutral review of group disability products. We’re seeing significant amounts of interest in the self-study course, both among large carriers and individual advisors who recognize that it would behoove them to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by having an expertise in these products.”

The GBDS marks are 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 and casualty space.