29% of American Workers Would Exhaust Resources within a Month

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Some 59% of U.S. workers said they would only be able to pay their bills without a paycheck for 12 weeks if they became sick and unable to work, according to a new national survey from Cigna.

Even more alarming is that 29% said they would exhaust their resources in a month or less. Workers are overwhelmingly unprepared financially to weather a costly injury or illness that keeps them out of work.

The survey was conducted among adults ages 25 to 65 living in the U.S. who work full-time and who enrolled for employer-offered benefits within the past two years. It examined views on different types of benefits, including various kinds of voluntary benefits such as disability, accidental injury, critical illness and accidental death insurance. Voluntary benefits are commonly offered by employers as an option for workers to purchase through payroll deductions and are designed to help consumers offset the financial impact of unexpected, serious injuries or illnesses.

When asked about different types of employer-offered benefits that can help provide financial protection, workers were significantly less familiar with these benefits compared to dental, vision and life insurance. However, nearly half of those who are not currently enrolled in these benefits through their employer said they would be more inclined to enroll in disability insurance (50%), critical illness insurance (46%) or accidental injury insurance (45%) after hearing more about what they cover.

"Voluntary benefits are an important and growing part of many employers' overall benefits package and many of these products can offer financial protection against the unforeseen," said Mike Witwer, vice president for Cigna's voluntary benefits business. "The survey shows that many workers are worried about the financial burden of a serious illness or injury or being without a paycheck because of one."

In Cigna's survey, workers ages 25 to 34 were least familiar with the different types of employer-offered benefits they were asked about including disability, accidental injury, accidental death and critical illness insurance.

Financial protection benefits are relatively inexpensive and would typically cost as much as one-month's car payment for an entire year of coverage, said Witwer. When considering the potential for disabilities and injuries, he recommends that millennials consider disability and accidental injury coverage.

"They typically do not have savings to fall back on if they are not able to work because of an accident or illness, and in general, they do not believe they will become sick but they realize they could experience an accident," he said.

The statistics are eye-opening since one in four of today's 20-year-olds will become disabled before they retire, and over 2.5 million disabled workers in the U.S. in their 20s, 30s and 40s received Social Security Disability Insurance benefits in December 2012. Every year, more than 4.1 million workers suffer a serious job-related injury or illness.

Even signing up for one benefit, such as short term or disability insurance, can help employees in the future.

"Illnesses and injuries happen all the time," Witwer said. "When and if they occur is hard to predict. One study showed that 1.7 million Americans file for bankruptcy each year due to medical bills."

Disability insurance often covers 50% to 60% of a worker's salary, he said. Without disability coverage, it would be a challenge for anyone to pay the mortgage or other bills while recovering.

The U.S. Federal Reserve board found that 68% of adult Americans do not have enough savings set aside for emergencies.

"Everyone should have a sound financial plan," Witwer said. "Choosing financial protection products can be a great way to protect a family, a home and keep hard-earned savings from quickly disappearing."

Many employees do not appreciate the limitations of their medical insurance, said Alvin Heggie, director of voluntary underwriting at Sun Life Financial. Out-of-pocket medical costs for a critical illness average $7,500, said Sun Life and that doesn't include loss of income from a potential workplace absence.

Group voluntary critical illness insurance allows qualifying individuals to use the unrestricted lump sum payment to meet out-of-pocket costs that health insurance may not cover, including certain medical procedures, out-of-network specialists or prescription drug co-pays.

Sun Life research found that while over 36% of surveyed individuals thought they had critical illness coverage, fewer than 5% of U.S. workers actually own such insurance.

Voluntary benefits are now seen as integral part of the benefits package, said Lydia Jilek, ING U.S., head of voluntary benefits and strategy.

"Voluntary products are evolving along with the medical landscape and give employees options to customize their benefits' package to meet their own personal coverage goals, price targets and risk tolerance," she said.

At least 40% of Americans would have to borrow money from friends, family or their 401(k) to pay unexpected medical costs with 25% of workers who have less than $500 in savings for an emergency and 46% have less than $1,000, said Audrey Boone Tillman, executive vice president, corporate services for Aflac.

Many voluntary insurance policies feature wellness benefits, which go beyond simply covering the very basics, she said. Voluntary insurance pays cash benefits to help policyholders offset rising out-of-pocket expenses not intended to be covered by major medical insurance, including, immunizations for the human papilloma virus (HPV), prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screenings, and even a routine breast ultrasound.

Gen Y consumers (born between 1981 and 1994) look to their employer for help in achieving financial security through benefits, said Michael Fradkin, senior vice president, voluntary and worksite benefits at MetLife. More than half or 51% say benefits were a very important reason for why they chose to work for their current employer.

"Millennials haven't been in the workforce as long as other generations, which mean this group may have limited savings," he said. "They also carry student loan and credit card debt. In the event of an unexpected serious illness, critical illness insurance can help meet ongoing expenses such as rent, student loan or credit card payments."

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet

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