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U.S. group disability market returns to work

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Players in the disability insurance community are getting ready for the upcoming Disability Insurance Awareness Month (DIAM) promotional campaign.

Life Happens — the organization formerly known as the Life and Health Foundation for Education (LIFE) — is updating its income protection content library.

The Council for Disability Awareness (CDA) has updated its Disability Disconnect infographic. The infographic illustrates, for example, how much bigger the actual risk of disability is than the perceived risk.

Insurers are also gearing up to promote disability insurance: A critical but mature, capital-intensive product line.

When the Great Recession rolled in, in 2008, group disability programs were much more stable than many of insurers’ other interest-sensitive businesses, and much less affected by regulatory upheaval than major medical insurance. But the publicly traded group disability insurance issuers had to talk every quarter about the effects of low rates, shrinking employers, and the risk that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) could somehow drown the disability insurance market.

Today, the group disability line seems to be rebounding from the Great Recession and PPACA anxiety disorder.

Kathy Plummer, director of product and market development at Unum Group Corp. (NYSE:UNM), a group disability giant, shared her thoughts Monday about the disability sector’s recovery from its own period of weakness. 

For a look at some of her thoughts about the market, read on.

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1. In some cases, employers cut their own disability benefits costs, by asking employees to pay more of the premiums, but they kept disability benefits in place.

Many insurers, and securities analysts, worried during the Great Recession that high medical costs and weak finances would force employers to eliminate disability benefits.

“We actually didn’t see that drop off in disability coverage,” Plummer said.

A few employers went out of business, and many let workers ago. Insurers reported often about seeing “in-group attrition.” But most of the surviving employers kept some kind of disability benefits program in place for the remaining workers, in part because they were shifting to higher-deductible medical plans to hold down medical benefits expenses, Plummer said.

Employers that needed to cut costs did so by switching from traditional employer-paid plans to voluntary, employee-paid plans, or to plans that combined employer-paid coverage with optional employee-paid coverage.

Today, Plummer said, in the employer market, “there is some organic growth beginning to happen.”

Plummer is seeing salaries creep up. But, for the most parts, employers are still very careful about spending, she said.

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2. Private exchanges may be having more of an effect on the disability market than PPACA is.

Plummer said she sees little evidence of efforts to hold down PPACA full-time equivalent (FTE) head counts affecting the group disability market.

Unum also is trying to convey the idea that employers should be as quick to offer disability insurance, at least on a voluntary basis, for part-time workers as for full-time workers, Plummer said.

Part-time workers who need to support themselves and their families may be even more vulnerable to loss of income than full-time workers are, Plummer said.

Unum is participating in several private exchange programs, At this point, Plummer said, there are not enough numbers coming out of the private exchange programs for her to know how they are already doing.

But Unum likes the private exchange effort and views it as a positive, Plummer said.

“I don’t think it’s going away,” Plummer said.

See also: Disability insurers wrestle for mind share

An army of colorful people icons

3. New agents and brokers are coming into the market.

For years, one worry for the group disability business and the insurance industry in general, has been the decline of big insurers’ agent training programs, and a lack of young agents coming into the business.

See also: The battle to recruit and retain new producers

Plummer said she’s had a different experience when she’s gone out into the field to talk to the people who sell Unum’s products.

“I saw a lot of young brokers,” Plummer said. “I feel like there’s a definitely interest.”

Benefits brokers may complain about the effects of PPACA on commissions, but Plummer said she sees little evidence that benefits brokers are going away.

“Their role has probably actually gotten bigger, in some ways,” Plummer said.

PPACA may be expanding employers’ need for brokers’ help with benefits requirements, Plummer said.

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