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Unum: Does Re-branding Deliver New Philosophy?

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Portland, MNThe collection of happy faces and focused statements filling the screen of the Unum re-branding video currently making the rounds on You Tube belie the company's checkered past.

That past includes lawsuits over unpaid and unduly-denied claims, a 2002 expose on the landmark CBS investigative program 60 Minutes and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of disparaging stories pouring out from disgruntled and despairing clients over the years, many of whom were forced into financial ruin after Unum failed to pay.

Will it work?

Smiling BusinesswomanThe video is a cheerleading piece that stresses just how good a company Unum is to work for, as well as do business with. Against a backdrop of the company's headquarters, and interior shots of smiling workers diligently going about the business of Unum, are various supers (the television industry term for super-imposing text over video) in white and blue flogging Unum's new mantra: "Our brand is more than a logo...it's who we are...we are a benefits company...we benefit both employers and employees...we are people-focused."

"One of the key elements of our branding strategy is really a focus around people, not product," says President and CEO Tom Watjen. "We're actually there, working with an employer, but also working with an individual. And frankly the objectives of both are not mutually exclusive. We can serve both the employer's needs, in terms of creating the right benefit package with the right cost structure, at the same time meet what's a growing need on the part of individuals."

Better benefits at work. Approachable. That's the mantra.

It appears obvious that Unum is pulling out all stops in an effort to re-invent itself in the eyes of consumers, disenchanted for years by a company seen as greedy, uncaring and just plain mean.

In the 60 Minutes report of 2002, a roster of former employees of Unum, then known as UnumProvident, articulated to the late Ed Bradley countless stories of deception.
One common practice was the setting of monthly targets for closures. Rather than set quotas for revenue, which is the norm in business, claims workers were given cost-saving targets, which were only achievable by denying claims and canceling, or closing claims outright.

Even claims that the adjusters agree were legitimate and did not deserve to be closed were shut down in an effort to meet monthly targets.

Dr. Judy Morris MD, a physician from Monson MA, has circulated a letter on the internet outlining her experience in attempting to make a claim after she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and other difficulties related to an improperly-functioning immune system. She was stonewalled, and ultimately denied.

"People who thought they were well protected in the event of disability are having to file for bankruptcy, lose their homes, and their health is most definitely suffering adversely from dealing with UNUM," she writes.

Industry insiders have suggested that insurance company claim representatives approach every claim from the position that it is probably a false claim, and then go about trying to verify if it is legitimate. This suggests an automatic unfairness to the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of customers who have honestly and prudently paid into a policy for years, only to receive nothing in return if a claim is denied.

It would be akin to putting your money in the bank, only to be told "oh, we don't like what you're going to use it for, so we're not going to give it to you. Sorry..."

Most Americans take the view that payments to a short, and/or long-term disability policy is more than just insurance—it's a good investment for the future, in the event the unthinkable happens.

However, it seems that the insurer will gladly take your premiums, only to balk and stonewall when it comes to paying you anything.

This is what Unum has been accused of time and time again. Yes, they have been bilked by unsavory individuals making a false claim. Every insurer has. But is it fair to approach every claimant, most of whom are well meaning and in distress, in the same light?

Dr. Morris writes that Unum hired a private investigator to videotape her comings and goings for three weeks "that I know of," she writes. Thus, because she was seen driving her car, she was viewed as not disabled from Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome—even though exhaustion and other cognitive deficits were impeding her work as an attending physician in the ER.

On the 2002 60 Minutes telecast, Dr. John Tedesco relates the story of what happened when he developed a tremor in his right hand, in 1998. An eye surgeon, he correctly concluded that he could no longer operate safely and filed a claim with UnumProvident, through a policy he paid into for six years as insurance against the day when he could no longer conduct surgery.

His claim was approved and he received benefits for four months—only to have the benefits stop, when UnumProvident concluded that he was not disabled. Tedesco said that the insurer did not bother to talk to his doctors, or himself. But they did send an investigator to do video surveillance, accusing him of playing football in the backyard and looking anything but disabled.

Turns out the fellow playing football was Tedesco's 23-year-old son.

Tedesco's story gets worse. In 1999, sadly, the surgeon was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Incredibly, UnumProvident still didn't pay.

"I can't explain it. There's not a person on this earth who would say that a person with Parkinson's disease could do eye surgery," Tedesco told 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley.

Dr. Tedesco wound up suing UnumProvident and was awarded $36 million. In an effort to avoid a lengthy appeal, the surgeon settled with the insurer for an undisclosed sum.

Last year UnumProvident became just Unum, in a re-branding exercise designed to put a fresh face on a besmirched trademark. Company officials suggest that the errors of the past, especially those which happened in the US, belong to history and that the company has reviewed its practices and policies, and did not find them wanting.

However, as recently as November of last year an in-depth BBC report investigating Unum's interest, and participation in welfare reform in the UK revealed that there are those in the UK who fear that Unum's misdeeds in the US could also happen there.
One gentleman, who was not identified in the video, had this to say:

"I think the (UK) government should have (Unum) in front of them in an open scrutiny process, in Parliament, and we should ask (Unum) what their game is, why it happened in the States first, and could not that happen here, if they're still with the same philosophy—and there is some indication now that they haven't changed that much, the leopard hasn't changed its spots."

"There are lots of product companies out there," says Kevin McCarthy, President of Unum US, in the corporate video. "Companies that manufacturer products stand behind those products, they're great companies. But we're going to be the only company that stands out there that says 'we're a benefits company, and we're about you—the customer."

The choice of music in the video is revealing. 'New Shoes,' a song by Paolo Nutini, and a symbolic statement to usher in a new era for Unum.

We shall see. In the meantime, Unum President and CEO Thomas Watjen can afford some nice shoes of his own. Business Week reported his annual compensation at $991,700 in 2006.

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Unum Legal Help

If you have had a disability claim denied, or if your claim was granted and then later terminated, please contact a lawyer involved in a possible [Unum Lawsuit] to review your case at no cost or obligation.

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