As U.S. companies increasingly try to cut costs by moving away from employer-funded benefits plans, many are turning to so-called “voluntary” programs which are sponsored by or offered through the employer but are funded by the employees themselves.

The trend offers opportunities to carriers who sell those plans, but also to the financial advisors and insurance agents who are able to market them to companies and their employees, according to a new study by LIMRA, a global research, consulting and professional development organization serving the insurance and financial services industry.

As Ron Neyer, author of the report and an assistant research director at LIMRA, told On Wall Street, “This study means that there is still quite an opportunity for financial advisors, agents and brokers to sell these voluntary benefits programs to employers -- including to those companies that have never offered voluntary plans.”

Neyer says the LIMRA study, titled “Voluntary Worksite Benefits: Penetration and Market Potential,” found that among U.S. companies that employ 10 or more people some 30% say they are considering adding new voluntary options within the next two years.

Neyer said, “Currently 57% of U.S. employers offer voluntary benefits, and this rate rises quickly as employer size increases. Assuming that most employers that express a likelihood of adding a new voluntary benefit in the next two years follow through, this will provide a new employee-pay-all option to as many as 46 million employees.”

The most popular voluntary products being offered, the study finds, are life insurance and cancer insurance plans, which are both currently being sold to workers at 300,000 businesses.  Voluntary long-term and short-term disability insurance products are also very popular and are currently being offered by 20% of employers.

Other popular voluntary plans are vision policies, offered by 20% of companies, and dental coverage, offered by 19%.

The study reports that one third of all employers that currently offer employer-funded or employer-contribution benefits are “considering” going to voluntary programs where the whole cost is the responsibility of the employee. This, the study says, could add between 19 million and 45 million workers to the market for voluntary health plans.

Interestingly, large firms with more than 1,000 employees are even more interested than smaller firms in transitioning their existing benefits programs to voluntary, employee-paid ones, with 50% saying they are considering the idea.

The two benefits plans most likely to be shifted from employer-funded to voluntary, according to this study, are medical insurance and prescription drug plans. Both these categories of benefits have experienced rapid cost increases in recent years.