Crossgrove Blog

A Proactive Approach to Disability Insurance

Thu, Jan 12, 2023 5:00 PM GMT

For too long, disability programs have been reactive rather than proactive, but connecting disability management to overall employee well-being strategies can help reduce disability trends and help employees on leave successfully return to work.

“Where we’re seeing our [plan sponsor] clients have success is acknowledging the problem starts way sooner than [the point when] someone is actually going off work,” said Taryn Huyer (centre), vice-president of transformation at CBI Health, during a panel session at Benefits Canada‘s 2022 Healthy Outcomes Conference. “It’s surrounding folks when they’re at work with the right resources.”

Taking a proactive approach to disability management and rehabilitation is crucial, she said, but too often it isn’t done. On average, people arrive at CBI’s door 14 months after their date of disability. “At that time, only 15 per cent of people opt to go back to work. And in Canada right now, less than one per cent of people are hired with disabilities. This is a very systemic issue that we’re quite attuned to because we deal with it every day.”

Brooke Schwarz (right), manager of national total rewards at BDO Canada LLP, said the company sees disability management as one piece of the employee well-being puzzle. “We take a look at our paramedical usage, our drug spend, our [employee assistance plan] usage and trends and we really try to look at those emerging themes and the trends that come in to help support our employees during that time.”

Mental health has always been among the top drivers of disability and EAP usage at BDO, said Schwarz. Pre-pandemic, it increased its allowance for spending on mental-health paramedical practitioners and introduced a mental health in the workplace program.

In addition, BDO is expecting to see an eight per cent increase in disability leaves in 2022, largely due to surgeries postponed by the pandemic. “A lot of those things are really out of our control,” she said, but added the company has tried to help employees by adding a virtual health-care option.

Kelly Dawson (left), global lead of wellness and leaves at Shopify Inc., pointed out employees going on leave tend to be a small percentage of the population, meaning employers have “much more opportunity to touch them before they get to that red zone” through an overall employee wellness strategy. In particular, the company has worked to simplify employees’ pathway to accessing mental-health supports. “You don’t want folks having to dig through internal web pages or asking a leader who doesn’t know what resources you have.”

Over the past few years, Dawson’s biggest focus has been updating accommodation and return-to-work support. Two years ago, Shopify told all managers to approve leaves of four weeks or less rather than referring it first to the wellness team. “Ideally, that gives the employee time to see their doctor, to focus on their recovery and not just proving to us that they need an accommodation.”

Huyer said employers that have successfully helped employees return to work are those that have introduced individualized strategies for employees, include things like remaining in contact with their managers and their human resources department while they’re off work and helping them navigate their benefits program to find the supports they need.

These strategies allow employees to feel empowered and take an active approach to their own journey. “When you’re engaged and empowered you have a much better chance of returning . . . back to your full purpose.”

If you’ve opted into your company’s group disability insurance plan, you may assume there’s sufficient income protection if you can’t work due to illness or injury. But experts say your workplace coverage may not be enough.  

John Ryan, founder and CEO of Ryan Insurance Strategy Consultants, urges employees to embrace group disability insurance, but warns “there can be a false sense of security with the employer plan.” 

For employees, group disability insurance offers guaranteed coverage at low or no cost, but you need to know what’s “under the hood,” he said, speaking at the Financial Planning Association’s annual conference in Seattle on Wednesday.

It’s estimated that 35% of private industry workers have access to workplace long-term disability insurance plans and 43% have access to short-term disability coverage, according to a September report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are two types of group disability insurance: short-term, which pays a temporary benefit, and long-term, which lasts for an extended period of time.

You’ll want to check the plan’s “exclusions and limitations,” outlined in the policy’s summary plan description, Ryan said. If anything raises a red flag, speak up and ask for clarification. 

It’s also important to know how much income is covered, since some policies protect only your base salary, not bonuses or commission. What’s more, you need to know whether the benefits received are before or after taxes, Ryan said.  

Why the policy’s definition of ‘disability’ matters

Another key detail is how your group plan defines disability, Ryan said. The most generous definition, “own occupation,” allows you to collect benefits if illness or injury prevents you from working in your current profession. Another, “any occupation,” means you’re not able to work any job.

Ryan said company plans typically use “own occupation” definition for the first two years of a claim. Once the definition changes, it may be harder to claim disability benefits if you can still work another job. It’s most difficult to claim benefits with the “any occupation” definition.

However, many policies are “more favorable than people think,” after the two-year period, he said. For example, the definition may include “the significant and substantial duties of an occupation that’s reasonable based on prior training, education and experience,” he said. 

“That’s a lot better definition,” Ryan said. “Reasonable” has been determined by the court system to be an occupation where you must earn at least 60% of your previous income within a 12-month period. “So that rules out selling pencils on the street corner,” he said.

How to ‘cover the gaps’ in group disability coverage 

If you discover shortfalls in your group disability plan, it’s possible to “cover the gaps” with an individual policy, Ryan said. But it can be a “tough underwriting process” and pricing may be a concern, he said.

However, individual policy pricing may be more flexible with certain features scaled back, Ryan said. It’s more important to have “some level of coverage” than to skip extra protection when it’s needed, he said.

For guidance, Ryan encourages consumers to tap an experienced disability insurance broker who works with more than one company. 

Currently, 14% of consumers have individual disability insurance coverage, down from an all-time high of 31% in 2012, according to LIMRA, an organization of financial services and insurance companies.

Whether it comes to groups or individuals, Crossgrove & Company ensures that its clients take a proactive approach to coverage.  A unique feature of ours is that we offer free consultations to our group client employees in order to educate them on the gaps that may exist between their group coverage and what they may need personally.  Contact us today to see what we can do for you!

Reference: Benefits Canada, CNBC