Aetna Life and Casualty Co. on Friday announced a restructuring plan, including 2,600 lost jobs, to tighten operations and save hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Hartford-based insurance company also announced a 51 percent drop in third-quarter earnings that included a one-time, $60 million charge for severance benefits and other costs associated with the reorganization.Analysts said the restructuring may be good medicine not only to Aetna but the ailing insurance industry, which has been suffering from soft premiums and poor returns in its real estate and bond investments.

Aetna's announcement "might set the tone for the insurance industry in general," said Denise A. Petsis, an analyst with Argus Research Corp. "The insurance industry is in a down cycle . . . There's very little room right now to improve revenue, so what they're trying to do is hold the line on costs."

Aetna, one of the nation's top five insurance companies, said it would save up to $95 million a year by reorganizing its three domestic insurance divisions into two groups.

In the process, 2,600 jobs will be eliminated through layoffs and attrition.

"Our goal is to build on the many areas of excellence Aetna must retain, and to solidify our position as a leader in insurance, related financial services and managed health care," said James T. Lynn, Aetna chairman.

Aetna's competitors are also retrenching. Travelers Corp., also based in Hartford, recently cut its dividend to save $100 million and said it will become choosier about where it sells coverage. Philadelphia-based Cigna Corp. is consolidating its domestic property and casualty operations to pull in any loose ends.

The `90s will be the era "where focus will count," said Michael Frinquelli, an insurance analyst with Salomon Bros.

"I don't think we will necessarily wind up a decade from now with fewer companies in the business. We will end up with same number - smaller and more focused," he said.

Aetna said it earned $88.6 million, or 80 cents per share, in the three months ended Sept. 30 compared to earnings of $183 million, or $1.63 per share, a year earlier.

Revenue slipped 1.2 percent to $4.84 billion in the quarter from $4.90 billion for the same period last year. Premiums rose slightly, to $3.3 billion from $3.2 billion last year.

Aetna said most of the job eliminations would come from its three offices in the Hartford area. About 17,400 of its 45,200 employees work in Hartford, Middletown and Windsor, Conn.

He said it was too early to tell how many of the jobs would be lost through layoffs.