SAN FRANCISCO -- When Provident, the nation's largest disability insurer, set out in 1994 to cut its losses from expensive long-term claims, it created a "Hungry Vulture" award to honor its most relentless employees.
The award bore a ruthless motto: "Patience, my foot ... I'm gonna kill something."
The insurer, which became UnumProvident Corp., scrapped the Hungry Vulture several years ago, but hundreds of unhappy policyholders allege the company based in Chattanooga, Tenn., still puts profits before the welfare of seriously ill and badly injured people.
The complaints come from people like Loretta Hale, a once-successful San Francisco Bay area real estate broker who has been fighting to collect disability benefits for the past 5 1/2 years while dying of cancer.
A jury returned a $1.5 million fraud verdict against UnumProvident in July 2000, but the company is pursuing an appeal that may outlive Hale.
"It's a strange feeling knowing someone wants you to die because of money," said Hale, 49.
Most of the lawsuits against UnumProvident revolve around expensive long-term disability policies sold to doctors, lawyers and small business owners during the 1980s and early 1990s. Although expensive, the policies proved popular because they couldn't be canceled and the premiums couldn't be raised, assuring injured or ill workers income comparable to what they made before a career-debilitating setback.
A confidential 1994 company memo produced in one court case said that these policies "were poorly underwritten and underpriced."
UnumProvident dismisses most of allegations as the sour grapes of a relatively few duplicitous and uncooperative policyholders. It maintains that complaints have been overblown by opportunistic lawyers and sensational media accounts, including stories on CBS' "60 Minutes" and "Dateline NBC."
"We are 100 percent proud of our customer care organization," said Thomas White, the company's vice president of corporate relations.
However, a federal judge in San Francisco concluded last month that the company had engaged in a wide range of shady activity to avoid paying legitimate disability claims. U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson criticized UnumProvident's business practices as he upheld a jury's $7.67 million penalty for mistreating former Berkeley chiropractor Joan Hangarter, and ordered the company to "obey the law."
Hangarter, 53, said she is bankrupt and suicidal since UnumProvident terminated her $8,150 monthly benefit for joint and muscle injuries that prompted her to stop treating her chiropractic patients in 1997. She now earns $12 an hour as a bookkeeper; she charged $350 an hour as a chiropractor.
In a September court filing, UnumProvident listed more than 2,500 policyholder lawsuits accusing it of fraud or breach of contract. The suits were filed from January 1997 to August of this year.
A federal court lawsuit filed last month in New York seeks to represent tens of thousands more UnumProvident policyholders as part of a class-action complaint against the company. Insurance regulators in California, Georgia and Tennessee also say they will investigate policyholder complaints.
UnumProvident says the complaints represent a small fraction of the roughly 400,000 disability claims it processes annually. It says it rejects less than 2 percent of those claims.
"Disability is UnumProvident's primary business, so integrity in claims paying and helping people return to work is essential to the company's long-term economic success," the company said in a statement.
Hale is determined to live long enough to see UnumProvident punished.
"How many people can take the mental duress that it takes to fight a company like this?" she wondered. "Sometimes, I think this has been more stressful than cancer."