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Disability Insurance Observer: Shutdown

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I’ve got to confess: The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics helps me get through the work day when it publishes its monthly reports on employment statistics for people with disabilities.

The truth is that, except when insureds get into arguments with carriers about whether their fibromyalgia is real, and except when the Federal Reserve Board uses low low rates to rob Insurer Peter to pay Banker Paul, disability insurance seems to work pretty well.

It’s a little bit hard to come up with hot new stories about disability insurance, because a lot of possible candidates involve boring he said-she debates about pain, or another illustration of the dire effects of low rates, or another survey about how workers and employers pay less attention to the risk of income loss than they really should.

Meanwhile, it seems as if, these days, at least since insurers put the individual disability policy problems behind them in the 1990s, most of the carriers in the individual or group disability markets seem to stay in the markets and do reasonably well, or very well, in those markets.

When I’m scrounging for disability story ideas, the thought of writing about some group’s plea for the government to do some harmless nice thing related to disability or disability insurance can be very attractive.

The federal government already conducts so many surveys, publishes so many reports, operates so many information clearinghouses, and organizes so many public education campaigns. Maybe it could ask a few more interesting questions of interest to disability insurers, publish an interesting disability report, or convene some interesting educational disability conference.

You have to be really, really far to the right to think that, when the government publishes a disability statistic, that’s a socialist plot.

Even a lot of people who would say they’re ardently pro-free-market might say that the government has a role in promoting market transparency, and that gathering and publishing statistics can help it create the information infrastructure needed to support free private markets.

Maybe simply providing a credible unemployment figure for adult workers with disabilities can somehow spur private employers and other private groups to make life easier for workers with disabilities.

The major budget-busting threats facing the United States are rising acute medical care and long-term care costs, and, to a much smaller extent, rising private pension and Social Security costs, not ordinary government operations spending.

But, on the other hand: When the government spends, say, a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand, or a few million dollars to create statistical reports, it’s getting that money from the taxes of Americans who, in some cases, may be barely scraping by. Even if eliminating some government statistical collection programs of marginal value might save a broke taxpayer a few quarters per month, keeping those quarters might lead to a big increase in the amount of loose change in the coffee can that stores that taxpayer’s life savings.

When the government “shut down,” I felt really angry about the announcement that public health officials are putting flu prevention programs on hold. I felt angry about the idea that national parks had closed, and that NASA might lose its launch windows for some of the space probes it wants to launch. 

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics failed to put out employment statistics, including the disability employment statistics, today, I yawned.

That raises the question: Are all of the statistical collection programs really necessary? If we get along fine without the statistics during the government shutdown, and the only loss is that some reporters have to look harder for story ideas, is that a sign that the government should consider axing a lot of those series of statistics?

If private for-profit and nonprofit organizations are the major users of those statistics, could the government sell the statistical collection program to, say, ADP or Manpower and let the private company get the organizational users to pay for the data collection programs?

If the problem is that only the government has the antitrust freedom to conduct such a survey, could the government, once again, privatize the data collection effort, but put the effort under just enough government oversight to clear away the antitrust concerns?

Regardless, it seems clear that, as nice, intelligent and generally admirable as the people involved in the programs that have actually shut down during the “shutdown” might be, those programs should rank high on the list of targets for holding down government spending. 

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