Insurers offer new programs to help disabled return to work


Specialist Andrew W. Soule, 25, a double amputee veteran of the Afghanistan conflict and Erik Schultz, 37, paralysed as result of a skiing accident, take a break in the river while on a river rafting trip Aug. 14, 2006 in Salmon River, Idaho. (Brent Stirton/GETTY IMAGES)
October 8, 2012

After completing radiation for lymph node cancer, Bill Henderson was so fatigued that he spent his days in his living room recliner, doubtful that he’d ever resume anything approaching a normal life.

But that was before his disability insurance carrier, Cigna, informed him of a road race that teams people with disabilities with volunteer runners who encourage and support people like Henderson — and hopefully help them get and stay healthier.

A few months later, Henderson, 58, ventured far from his recliner in Greenwood, Ind., to run five miles in the annual Achilles International’s Hope & Possibility event in New York.

Not only had Henderson’s insurer encouraged him to contact Achilles — a charity that Cigna supported last year with a $50,000 grant — but it also provided him and other disability insurance beneficiaries on its rolls with vocational counselors and other services.

Jim Angstadt, a spokesman for Cigna, says most of the people taking advantage of disability services are recovering from musculoskeletal conditions, amputations, cancer, diabetes and brain injuries. “We’re aiming for as many as possible to do as in­cred­ibly well as Bill Henderson.”

Cigna isn’t the only insurance company moving beyond the traditional role of just paying legitimate claims for beneficiaries who become disabled.

“In the last 10 or 15 years, insurers and employers have recognized the opportunity to go beyond disability payments and help people injured or ill return to their previous lives or build new ones,” says Helen Darling, chief executive of the National Business Group on Health, which helps large employers strategize about employee-related health-care issues.

Aetna, for example, has funded research and distribution of assistive technology such as hands-free phone systems and ergonomic keyboards that can help workers adapt to a worksite.

The Association of Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, recently noted an uptick in efforts by disability insurers to help employers either get workers back on their jobs or help them make alternative plans for productive lives.

These insurers counsel employers on adjusting workloads, schedules and facilities for disabled workers. Some insurers include the assignment of vocational counselors who help build the confidence that some employees need to go back to their workplace, perhaps more limited than before, after a long absence.

Disability experts say at least two factors are behind the insurers’ expanded involvement with their clients — a little bit of altruism coupled with a lot of business sense.

“Recognizing the civil rights of the disabled has certainly improved in the last few years, and I adore what Cigna is doing,” says Joe Canose, a senior vice president of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. “But insurers also realize that preventing secondary health events, such as bedsores and diabetes caused by inactivity, saves them money. So these emerging programs make sense on many levels.”

About 80 percent of Americans with disabilities were not born with impairments but developed them later in life through illness or injury — which suggests that employers are going to encounter unanticipated disabilities among employees.

In many cases, private industry is following the example set by nonprofits that encourage activity among the disabled. Cigna began working with Achilles after the nonprofit’s founder, Dick Traum, an amputee and marathon runner, happened to meet Mark Marsters, head of disability and accident operations for Cigna, at a dinner party.

Other trend-setting nonprofits include the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which funds Live­Strong — 12-week, small-group programs at 200 YMCAs across the country. The goal of the free program is to get people who have just finished cancer treatment to be and to feel emotionally and physically strong. The ultimate goal is to return them either to “their normal life or their new normal,” says Rae Bazzarre, a LiveStrong spokeswoman.

The Reeve Foundation, meanwhile, has given out $15 million in grants to nonprofit organizations for education, job training and sports activities for people with paralysis. The grants are funded through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provides funds for the programs the foundation then runs.

Interest in emotional and physical rehabilitation has grown in recent years as wounded military personnel have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, says Lawrence Carter-Long, a public affairs specialist for the federal National Council on Disability.

One such soldier, Matias Ferreira, 23, who lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2011, said he stared at the ceiling from his hospital bed at Bethesda Naval Hospital for four months until two Achilles volunteers urged him to try a hand cycle.

He mastered it on the first try, and two months later joined the Achilles event in a hand-crank wheelchair. That gave him the confidence and desire to try prosthetic legs, which he used about six months later to run the Disney Half Marathon in Orlando.

His volunteer Achilles partner? David Cordani, president and chief executive of Cigna.

Henderson, meanwhile, is planning a move with his wife to Minneapolis to become a church pastor — a lifelong dream. And he is still running.

Kritz is a health writer living in Silver Spring.

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