- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

Q: Do I need to buy disability insurance?

A. Most people think of disability as the kind of illness or injury that puts someone in a wheelchair, like a riding accident did to the late “Superman” star Christopher Reeve, or of problems that lead to hearing loss or blindness.

But, in fact, “it’s much more likely to be the result of back pain, diabetes, depression or hypertension,” said Carol A. Harnett, an executive with the Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. “This is the face of disability in the United States today.”

Ms. Harnett points out that many of these problems are the result of what she terms “lifestyle” shortcomings, such as smoking, overeating and lack of exercise. But they still can result in extended absences from work.

“About one in two live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “How are they going to make it if they can’t work for a while?”

Many people think they will be OK because they have workers’ compensation insurance. This government-mandated insurance provides benefits to covered employees and their dependents if the employee is injured on the job.

But David F. Woods, president of the nonprofit Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education (LIFE), based in Washington, pointed out that workers’ compensation insurance “only covers you when you’re hurt or sick in a work-related situation … and doesn’t cover you for a nonwork sickness or injury.”

While some companies offer disability insurance as a benefit, it generally covers only short-term absences with a limited monthly payment. And many workers don’t sign up for more or don’t go out to seek private coverage.

“One way to look at it is that your income is probably your biggest asset,” Mr. Woods said. “You insure your home, your car, your life. Your earned income is an asset that needs to be insured, too.”

LIFE has a calculator on its Web site to help consumers determine how much coverage they need (www.life-line.org/disabilitycalculator).

Mr. Woods advises that because disability insurance can be complicated — with varying definitions of what constitutes a disability and when coverage kicks in — it can be a good idea to consult an insurance agent.

Ms. Harnett said many people think that disability insurance is for the elderly. But, she said, “one in three people between 35 and 65 will have a disability that lasts 90 or more days.”

Many workers opt out of the disability insurance offered by employers or don’t select disability insurance as part of their “cafeteria plan” coverage, she said.

“It’s a bad choice,” she said. “Long-term coverage costs, on average, about $200 a year.”

If disability insurance isn’t on offer, “ask your employer to consider adding it,” she said. Employers also can step in and help negotiate group rates on disability insurance for their employees, she added.

“The bottom line is: It’s not about what happens to my family if I die, it’s what happens to my family if I survive,” she said.

The Hartford also offers a calculator people can use to determine their coverage needs at www.thehartfordatwork.com.

ASSOCIATED PRESS


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