Big employers may have ramped up U.S. group disability in the first half by enrolling more of their employees in income-protection plans.

Premium revenue from new disability sales were 15% higher than sales for the first half of 2006 both for group long-term disability insurance and for group short-term disability insurance, according to the latest mid-year disability market survey report from JHA, Portland, Maine, a disability reinsurance, risk management and research unit of General Re Life Corp., Stamford, Conn.

The researchers who compiled the report drew on survey results from 30 insurers that sell disability insurance in the U.S. market.

The new double-digit growth rate in sales is the highest growth rate disability insurers have reported in years.

“We never know whether [the mid-year growth rate] will sustain itself for the full year,” says Stacy Varney, a JHA vice president. “But we’re really excited to see that type of sales growth in the mid-year,”

Disability insurance company executives have been talking about making greater efforts to reach out to smaller employers.

This year, strong large-case sales seem to be driving much of the growth,

The average size of new cases written has grown 10% for LTD groups and 15% for STD groups this year, and the actual number of new STD cases placed has fallen 7.3%, to about 17,000, according to JHA.

Although large-cases dominated the first-half sales statistics, sales also seem to be up at a number of insurers that focus on serving smaller groups, JHA executives say.

Disability insurers succeeded at increasing the total number of U.S. workers they protect against short-term disability 5% in the first half, to more than 16 million, and they increased the number of workers they protect against long-term disability 5%, to about 39 million.

Insurers generated $402 million in new STD sales and $915 million in new LTD sales.

Premium revenue from in-force cases rose 6% for LTD coverage, to $4.7 billion, and 8% for STD coverage, to $1.7 billion.

Average premium revenue per employee insured increased 1% in the group LTD market, to $236, and 3% in the group STD market, to $201, according to JHA.

UnumProvident Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn., ranked first in terms of revenue from in-force group disability cases.

Unum also ranked first in terms of the number of new LTD and STD cases placed.

Hartford Life, a unit of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Hartford, ranked first in terms of revenue from new LTD and STD sales.

In the “voluntary,” 100% employee-paid market, voluntary STD sales increased 23%, to $38 million, and voluntary LTD sales increased 9%, to $29 million, JHA reports.

The voluntary carriers held on to enough existing customers to expand revenue from in-force coverage.

Earned premium from in-force voluntary STD increased 14%, to $123 million, and earned premium from in-force voluntary LTD increased 9%, to $163 million, according to JHA.

A few carriers seem to be behind much of the growth in both the traditional and the voluntary disability markets, JHA says.

The rebound in market growth comes on the heels of efforts by the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education, Washington, to make March Disability Insurance Awareness Month.

Partly in response to JHA executives’ calls for action, LIFE itself, disability insurers and the new Council for Disability Awareness, Chattanooga, Tenn., pegged promotional campaigns to the disability awareness month.

The promotions may be getting some attention.

Disability insurance executives and benefits managers complained in March, at JHA’s annual disability conference, about employees’ lack of interest in disability insurance.

But Delta Dental of Missouri, St. Louis, commissioned a survey earlier this year and found that 59% of the employees surveyed now identify long-term disability insurance as an “absolutely essential” benefit. Only 2% of the participating employees described LTD coverage as “not very important.”

Varney thinks the disability industry as a whole is benefiting from a decision by Aflac Inc., Columbus, Ga., a company that sells employee-paid insurance at the worksite, to use its television advertising campaign to explain the importance of voluntary disability insurance.

Thanks to the popularity of voluntary disability insurance, employers that never considering buying employer-paid group disability coverage in the past may be experimenting with paying for group disability coverage, Varney says.

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