Voluntary benefit sales in worksites held their own this year despite the dismal economy, which caused sales to lag in the third quarter.

LIMRA International’s most recent U.S. Worksite Sales survey showed that new worksite product insurance premiums year-to-date as of the end of the third quarter were 1% ahead of last year’s pace. Viewed alone, third quarter sales for voluntary worksite benefits were nearly identical to those from the same period of 2007, reports LIMRA, Windsor, Conn.

Voluntary life insurance remained the leading worksite product in the third quarter, increasing by 7% over the same period a year earlier. Though whole life’s strong momentum cooled down during the quarter, it still increased 16% YTD. Meanwhile, a surge in term products during the most recent quarter helped to push sales for the product up 9% for the first 9 months of 2008. Universal life premiums remained flat through September, LIMRA found.

The overall increase in life premium for the first three quarters was a surprise to Ron Neyer, a LIMRA analyst, particularly considering that as a whole, voluntary benefit sales were flat in third quarter. More carriers appear to be entering the market, which may explain some of the increase, says Neyer.

Stand-alone accidental death and dismemberment insurance sales encountered a difficult year, LIMRA found. AD&D sales reached $22 million, down 28% from the year before. At least some of the decline, however, may be because some carriers are including AD&D premiums in sales of life insurance, which often offers AD&D as a rider, explains Neyer.

Total voluntary health care products are just slightly behind last year’s pace as of the third quarter, though larger swings are seen for various individual products, LIMRA found. Year to date, premiums increased for long term care (up 7%), dread disease (6%), and voluntary medical insurance products, including hospital indemnity and supplemental medical (5%). While short term disability sales were up 2% over the same period of 2007, long term disability was down 6%. Also below their 2007 levels as of September were critical illness (-9%), dental (-6%), and vision (-27%), according to LIMRA’s survey of 35 carriers.

About 94% of group health care insurance brokers sell at least some voluntary products, another report finds. Most, however, only do so occasionally, or when a group client specifically asks for a voluntary benefit for its employees, according to the report from Eastbridge Associates Inc., Avon, Conn. Eastbridge interviewed 644 brokers for its study. Of these, 12% reported getting less than 1% of their income from voluntary benefits.

Eastbridge’s Worksite Confidence Index, stood at 96.2 at mid-year, down from 101 in mid-2007. The firm bases its index on a survey of voluntary benefit marketers’ expectations for sales growth, profitability and employee interest in voluntary benefits. The benchmark level of 100 was set in 2005.

One bright sign for voluntary benefit marketers is that more employers seem to be trying to improve their employees’ understanding of the value of their benefits. For instance, more employers are using the Web to provide targeted benefits information, according to the “Study of Employee Benefits: 2008 & Beyond” by Prudential Financial Inc., Newark, N.J.

Prudential found that 38% of employers agree that their voluntary benefit programs have had a positive impact on overall employee satisfaction with their benefits, while 46% said that offering voluntary benefits has helped lower their overall benefits costs.