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Unum continues to fight low rates, soft employment

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Unum Group Corp. (NYSE:UNM) is still facing pressure from a weak labor market and low interest rates.

The low rates continue to pound the company’s long-term disability (LTD) insurance business and its closed block of long-term care insurance business, leading the company to pass rate increases onto consumers.

Thomas Watjen, Unum’s president, said the company is also facing a new challenge: the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA).

“Many brokers and agents, and employers, are focused on implementing health care reform, and delaying the implementation of new benefit programs,” Watjen said today during a call Unum held to discuss its first-quarter earnings. “This headwind may be with us for much of 2013.”

Unum, a major disability insurance and voluntary benefits supplier, is reporting $213 million in net income for the latest quarter on $2.6 billion in revenue, compared with $214 million in net income on $2.6 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2012.

The U.S. group disability business is reporting $78 million in operating income on $524 million in premium revenue, up from $75 million in operating income on $513 million in premium revenue.

But group LTD sales fell 13 percent, to $31 million, in part because the company has coped with low interest earnings on investments by increasing coverage prices.

Group short-term disability (STD) sales increased 18 percent, to $16 million.

The company has been “tactically increasing” group disability renewal rates, and it has tried to be especially disciplined when underwriting large voluntary benefits cases with high employee turnover, executives said during the earnings call.

Worries about PPACA seem to be affecting employers with fewer than 2,000 employees more than they have been affecting larger employers, executives said.

One challenge is that employers and benefits advisors are still trying to figure what types of voluntary products or other products will complement health benefits plans shaped by PPACA, according to Kevin McCarthy, president of the U.S. business.

McCarthy said the Colonial Life voluntary benefits can connect with about 40 different benefits administration and health exchange administration systems. That should help Colonial Life sell PPACA plan voluntary wrap-around products, he said.

Colonial Life will be adding a new group hospital indemnity product that’s designed to fit into the post-PPACA universe, McCarthy said.

Another executive, Randall Horn, president of Colonial Life, said Colonial Life expects employers to need more help with benefits communication services.

Horn said at another point that Colonial Life has reduced agent recruitment this year to about 900 to 1,000, from 1,500 in early 2012.

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