Provident Life and Assurance Co. is looking to shore up its sagging disability insurance business by selling its policies through banks.

The Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company is a leader in insuring the income of wealthy white-collar professionals, such as physicians and lawyers, against disabling injuries or illnesses.

Now, it plans to use banks to bring streamlined disability insurance to the masses.

"The higher end of the population has grasped the concept" that its pay is really its most important asset, said Richard W. Busby, a Provident vice president for alternative markets. "We need to bring that down to the middle market."

Selling disability policies to the wealthy has become less profitable for insurers in recent years, so many disability providers - like their life insurance counterparts - are scrambling to find new ways to broaden their business.

Banks are a particularly attractive outlet for reaching the estimated 80% of the population that doesn't have disability coverage, Mr. Busby said. Plus, the policies could be sold as a complement to other bank products, such as mortgages, Mr. Busby said.

Selling disability insurance through banks, however, will require vastly simplified policies and new approaches, skeptics and supporters agree.

Traditional policies require detailed medical exams and tax records as well as long waiting periods before benefits kick in.

To make its policies appeal to banks, Provident plans to cut the paperwork, eliminate medical exams, and offer a modest benefit capped at five years in exchange for annual premiums of less than $800. But observers say that may not be enough.

"The bank culture is something they don't have a clue about," said Gerald M. Hankin, a disability insurance representative and consultant based in Virginia Beach, Va.

And he's skeptical that Provident - or any other disability insurer - will be able to penetrate the bank market soon.

For instance, bankers won't accept a product for which many of its customers won't qualify, as they could jeopardize existing customer relationships by turning down applications for disability policies. "The department leads come from will go ballistic," Mr. Hankin said.

And if the insurance is made too rejection resistant, he explained, it would likely be so stripped of value as to be unsellable.

Provident officials disagree. But they harbor few illusions about the difficulty in cracking the bank market, Mr. Busby said.

"We're trying to find a way to make this work because we think we see a market," he said.

He described the current effort as a "test" to develop products and approaches that will succeed in banks.

"We're working with some banks now that are willing to take some chances and risks," he said. Other than Centura Banks Inc., Rocky Mount, N.C., however, Provident declined to name specific partners.

Fleet Financial Group confirmed that it plans to test disability insurance alongside a term life insurance policy beginning this fall.

But negotiations with underwriters have yet to be concluded, and a Fleet spokesman declined comment on whether Provident is among them.

Mr. Busby said more than eight large banks are now working with Provident and that he's in negotiation to sign upward of 20 more.

Traditional disability insurers, once working in one of the industry's most profitably niches, have suffered in recent years from underwriting problems that have driven policy prices up and made their terms unattractive.

In fact, the downturn has caused some disability insurance veterans to look for greener pastures.

"I took my licks and decided to get out of the disability business," said Greg Vacca, who now heads the insurance program at First Nationwide Bank, West Sacramento, Calif.

Mr. Vacca ran an independent disability insurance agency before joining First Nationwide and has no plans to add the disability insurance to his product mix despite their entreaties.

"It's not something I want our investment reps spending time on," Mr. Vacca said. "We're not even going to mess with it."

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