Program Helps Long-Term Disabled Workers Return to Work by Crossing Finish Line

Insurance giant Cigna Corp. partners with a New York health organization to put long-term disabled workers on the track to good health and re-entry into the workforce.

July 17, 2012

As the population ages, the number of workers with disability claims is skyrocketing, and employers and insurers are trying to figure out how best to serve these patients while also reducing their costs.

Social Security disability claims grew 21 percent between 2008 and 2011, and employer disability costs can comprise up to 35 percent of payroll, according to a Mercer/Kronos 2010 study.

What's more, employees who go on disability and don't re-enter the workforce within one year have a 90 percent chance of never going back to work, according to consultancy Towers Watson & Co.

Health insurance giant Cigna Corp. is addressing this issue through a new partnership with Achilles International, a New York-based not-for-profit that provides coaching, training and support for the long-term disabled people to participate in mainstream sporting events such as marathons.

Bloomfield, Connecticut-based Cigna launched the program in January and so far has referred 20 long-term disabled customers to Achilles. The insurance carrier plans to refer 100 members this year. Cigna gave Achilles International a $50,000 grant to pay all costs for members to participate, including personal training and travel to events.

"If they can gain their ability to go back to work, that's great," said Mark Marsters, senior vice president for Cigna's disability insurance business. "But that's not what this is really about. It's about regaining the ability to start their journey back to health and productivity."

Cigna has about 12.6 million medical customers and 11 million disability customers in the United States. Of Cigna's disability customers, 250,000 to 300,000 are on disability leave every year.

Disability claims include maternity coverage and short- and long-term injuries and illnesses. In 2011, Cigna processed nearly $800 million in disability benefits payments, according to the company.

Of those total Cigna disability claims, about 35,000 are long-term disabled. The average claim for the long-term disabled lasts for 31 months, the insurer said.

Clearly, not all long-term disabled are able to participate in mainstream sporting events. Some have terminal diagnoses and some are still undergoing treatment or recovering from injury. But, Cigna is targeting clients with emotional disabilities, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injuries, loss of mobility, cancer, diabetes and stroke for the Achilles program. Cigna case managers refer clients to the program.

"We are looking for folks who have identified a desire to set goals and return to a healthier lifestyle," Marsters said.

Bill Henderson is one such motivated member. Henderson, 59, was diagnosed in April 2011 with cancer of the lymph nodes with the primary site at the base of his tongue. He underwent neck and tongue surgery as well as radiation treatment. He lost 50 pounds and was too weak to do the dishes, let alone walk once around the block.

Last October, Henderson was paired with a Cigna vocational rehabilitation counselor to begin his recovery with speech and physical therapy.

"At the time she called, I was in really bad shape," Henderson said from his home in Greenwood, Indiana. "I was taking a lot of naps and not doing much of anything."

Muscle wasting had set in, and he began physical therapy to reverse some of the side effects of cancer treatment. He finished speech and physical therapy in December and looked toward setting more goals. He was referred to a trainer at Achilles International in February.

He started walking outside, purchased an elliptical machine and began a calisthenics regimen. He works out for 20 to 30 minutes every other day and is now walking up to 2.5 miles at a time.

Henderson recalls his 5-year-old granddaughter crawling on his lap when he started the Achilles program and announcing, "Papa isn't sick anymore, he's just tired."

For Henderson's wife, Gail, an oncology nurse, those words were a wake-up call for the whole family. "We needed to stop treating him like a sick person," she said.

Henderson traveled in June to New York to participate in Achilles' annual Hope and Possibility five-mile race through Central Park.

Megan Wynne Lombardo, director of development at Achilles International, said the organization's goal is to inspire those with disabilities to achieve.

"People are not going back to their previous lives," she said. "They need to find a new way to achieve new goals."

Achilles focuses on placing people with disabilities in mainstream athletic events for a reason. "We thought mainstream accomplishments would be widely respected," Lombardo said. "To say that you completed a marathon in a job interview conveys a certain respect; there is a halo effect."

Cigna isn't the first insurer to try to motivate the long-term disabled, said Mary Tavarozzi, senior consultant at Towers Watson.

"Carriers are all uniquely interested in figuring out who is that subset of people who have the capacity physically and mentally to get back to work in some way," Tavarozzi said.

The Hartford, for instance, is a founding sponsor of the U.S. Paralympics, and its athletes serve as motivational speakers for long-term disabled clients. Unum, meanwhile, tried a program where long-term disabled participated in volunteer work in their communities, she said.

"It's almost more of an emotional intervention," Tavarozzi said of such programs. "Cigna is doing its own version of trying to solve that motivational puzzle."

For Henderson, it appears to be working.

A former account manager at Stanley Black & Decker, a tools and security multinational, Henderson said he can't go back to working 12- to 14-hour days.

"My goal now is to try to get into part-time work where I can utilize my strengths," he said. A former missionary in South Africa, he is considering going into the ministry.

"This kind of event makes you think and put your life in perspective," he said.

Rebecca Vesely is a writer based in San Francisco. Comment below or email