Insurers have been fleeing the beleaguered market for long-term care coverage, but Thrivent Financial for Lutherans says it's heading back in.

The Minneapolis-based company said Thursday that it's now offering Thrivent Long-Term Care Insurance to cover a broad range of benefits retirees are interested in, such as home care services, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and hospice care. The insurance is available to the entire U.S. Lutheran market that Thrivent sells to, about 8 million to 10 million people.

It's an about-face for Thrivent, which exited the long-term care market in 2003, citing a difficult business environment dominated by public companies pricing aggressively. The company, technically a not-for profit membership organization, continued selling other carriers' products but stopped writing its own.

It's been waiting to return, said CFO Randy Boushek. "All of the risks have diminished significantly if you're starting fresh," Boushek said in an interview. "The pricing in the market is much more rational. It is higher, but much more rational from a provider's viewpoint.

"When a lot of other people are heading for the hills is when you need to be looking for an opportunity."

In the last five years, 10 of the largest 20 writers for long-term care have exited the industry, Boushek noted, almost all of them public companies. The market has now shifted. Top players now include other mutual, cooperative type companies such as Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Mutual of Omaha, making the industry more attractive to Thrivent.

The American Association for Long Term Care Insurance said it welcomes a bit of good news.

"When everybody is predicting the demise of an industry, this is clearly a welcome sign that the industry is vital," said association head Jesse Slome.

Boushek said policies vary so much that he didn't want to discuss pricing. According to Slome's association, someone who is 55 can expect to pay around $1,720 a year for a standard long-term care insurance plan that would pay out about $170,000 immediately and about $354,000 at age 80.

Slome and many insurance experts blame ultra-low interest rates for much of the industry's woes. Low rates wreak havoc because low investment income makes it hard for companies to profitably cover long-term care benefits.

"Low interest rates are to long-term care insurance what $4 gasoline is to an SUV maker," Slome said.

Other factors have been at play, too, industry experts say. Healthcare costs have been rising, there's been a lower-than-expected rate of people dropping the policies and people are simply living longer than expected. The relatively young industry didn't have the wealth of data to properly price risk.

Slome said a new entrant starting from scratch has the advantage of not being encumbered with all the previous assumptions. "The bigger question is: How many policies do they expect to sell?"

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683