Category Archives: 10 Biggest Mistakes

Can Your Disability Insurance Company Dictate The Medical Treatment You Must Receive To Collect Benefits? Part 4

Care Dictation Provisions

Throughout this series of posts we’ve addressed the increasingly restrictive medical care provisions in disability insurance policies.  In Part 1, we discussed the evolution of the care standard and its effect on an insured’s ability to collect benefits and control their own medical treatment.  In Part 2 we looked at the “regular care” standard, which places no obligation on the insured to undergo any unwanted medical treatment.  In Part 3 we looked at the “appropriate care” and “most appropriate care” standards, which require much more vigilance on the part of policyholders, because they must be prepared at any time to establish that the treatment they are receiving is justified under the circumstances.  In this final post, we are going to look at the most aggressive and intrusive language that has been adopted by insurance companies in an effort to dictate the care of their policyholders.

Here is an example of a very strict care provision, taken from a Great West policy:

Regular Care of a Physician means personal care and treatment by a qualified Physician, which under prevailing medical standards is appropriate to the condition causing Total Disability or Residual Disability.  This care and treatment must be at such intervals as will tend to lead to a cure, alleviation, or minimization of the condition(s) causing Total Disability or Residual Disability and which will lead to the Member’s return to the substantial and material duties of his own profession or occupation or maximum medical improvement with appropriate maintenance care.

Clearly, this provision was designed with one goal in mind:  to give the insurer nearly unlimited power to scrutinize a policyholder’s course of treatment, including the ability to insist that any given procedure is necessary to cure or minimize the disability and maximize medical improvement.  It is easy to see how an insurer might invoke this provision to assert its control over the medical decision making of their policyholder and use the leverage of benefit termination and claims denial to dictate their treatment.

Imagine that you are a surgeon with a herniated disc in your cervical spine, and that your policy contains the provision cited above.  Your insurer insists that a fusion of the surrounding vertebra is the procedure most likely to alleviate your disability. Your doctor disagrees, recommending a more conservative course of treatment, such as physical therapy, modified activity and medication, such as muscle relaxants.  Your doctor also warns you that if you have the surgery, you will experience reduced mobility and risk adjacent segment degeneration.  However, your disability benefits are your only source of income.  Fearing a claim denial, you agree to the procedure despite your doctor’s concerns.  This results in a no-lose scenario for the insurer.

The best case scenario, from your insurer’s perspective, is that the surgery (for which you bore all the risk both physically and financially) is successful and you are no longer disabled.  At worst, the procedure fails and the insurer merely has to pay the benefits it was obligated to pay to you in the first place.  For you, however, an unsuccessful procedure can mean exacerbation of your condition, increased pain, and prolonged suffering.  It is therefore vital that you understand your rights under your policy.

Insurers are risk-averse by nature, and disability insurance is no different.  Modern disability insurance policies, and particularly the medical care provisions, are designed to minimize the financial risk to the insurer. Insurers place an enormous burden on claimants to prove that their course of treatment meets the rigorous standards in their policy. Though stringent policy language can make it significantly more difficult to obtain the benefits you are entitled to, it does not strip you of your right to make your own medical decisions.

In order to preserve your medical autonomy in the disability claims process, you must become familiar with the details of your policy before filing a claim.  Understanding the terms of your policy—including the care provision in your policy—is critical to successfully navigating a disability claim.  You need to be familiar with your policy’s care requirements from the outset, so that you can communicate effectively with your physician to develop a plan of treatment that you are comfortable with and that comports with the terms of your policy.

Even if you have a basic understanding of your rights under you policy, it can be daunting to deal with an insurer that is aggressively seeking to dictate your medical care.  In some cases, you may be forced to go to court to assert your right to make your own medical decisions—particularly if your policy contains one of the more recent, hyper-restrictive care provisions like the Great West provision above.  Insurers know this, and they also know that most claimants are in no position to engage in a protracted court battle over whether they are receiving appropriate care.  However, simply submitting to the medical mandates of your insurer to avoid the stresses and costs associated with litigation can have drastic consequences, depending on the nature of the medical care you are being asked to submit to.  If you should find yourself in this difficult position, you should contact an experienced disability insurance attorney.  He or she will be able to inform you of your rights under your policy and help you make an informed decision.

 

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Can Your Disability Insurance Company Dictate The Medical Treatment You Must Receive To Collect Benefits? Part 2

“Regular Care”

If you are a doctor or dentist and you bought your individual disability insurance policy in the 1980s or 1990s, the medical care provision in your policy likely contains some variation of the following language:

Physician’s Care means you are under the regular care and attendance of a physician.”

This type of care provision is probably the least stringent of all the care provisions.  If your policy contains a “regular care” provision, courts have determined that you are under no obligation to minimize or mitigate your disability by undergoing medical treatment.[1]  In other words, you cannot be penalized for refusing to undergo surgery or other procedures—even if the procedure in question is minimally invasive and usually successful.[2]

Let’s look at an actual case involving a “regular care” provision.  In Heller v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, Dr. Stanley Heller was an invasive cardiologist suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome who declined to undergo corrective surgery on his left hand.  Equitable Life refused to pay his disability benefits, insisting that the surgery was routine, low risk, and required by the “regular care” provision of Dr. Heller’s policy.  The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, and determined that the “regular care” provision did not grant Equitable Life the right to scrutinize or direct Dr. Heller’s treatment.  To the contrary, the Court held that “regular care” simply meant that Dr. Heller’s health must be monitored by a treatment provider on a regular basis.[3]

Unfortunately, the Heller case didn’t stop insurance companies from looking for other ways to control policyholders’ care and threaten denial of benefits.  For instance, some disability insurance providers argued that provisions requiring policyholders to “cooperate” with their insurer grants them the right to request that a policyholder undergo surgery.  Remarkably, when insurers employ these tactics, they are interpreting the policy language in the broadest manner possible–even though they know that the laws in virtually every state require that insurance policies be construed narrowly against the insurer.

Why would insurance companies make these sorts of claims when it is likely that they would ultimately lose in court?  Because insurance companies also know that even if their position is wrong, most insureds who are disabled and/or prohibited from working under their disability policy cannot handle the strain and burden of protracted litigation.  They know that if they threaten to deny or terminate benefits, many insureds will seriously consider having surgery—if only to avoid the stress and expense of a lawsuit.  Unfortunately, this can lead to insureds submitting to unwanted medical procedures, despite having no legal obligation to do so.

As time went on, and more and more courts began to hold that “regular care” simply meant that the insured must regularly visit his or her doctor, Unum, Great West, Guardian, and other insurers stopped issuing policies containing that language.  Instead, insurers started to insert “appropriate care” standards into policies.  In the next post, we will discuss this heightened standard and how insurers predictably used it as a vehicle to challenge the judgment of policyholders’ doctors, in a renewed effort to dictate their policyholders’ medical care.

[1] Casson v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 455 A.2d 361, 366-77 (Del. Super. 1982)

[2] North American Acc. Ins. Co. v. Henderson, 170 So. 528, 529-30 (Miss. 1937)

[3] Heller v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, 833 F.2d 1253 (7th Cir. 1987)

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The Devil Is In the Details: Long Term Disability Policies and Benefit Offsets

In a previous post, we discussed a feature of long-term disability insurance policies that is easily overlooked and frequently leaves policyholders feeling cheated and deceived by their insurer:  the benefit offset provision.  When a person signs up for a disability insurance policy, he or she expects to pay a certain premium in exchange for the assurance that the insurance company will provide the agreed-upon monthly benefit listed in the policy, should they ever become disabled.  What many people do not realize is that some disability insurance policies contain language that permits the insurer to reduce the amount of monthly benefits it is required to pay if the policyholder receives other benefits from another source.

Worker’s compensation, supplementary disability insurance policies, state disability benefits, and social security are some of the most common “other sources” from which policyholders may unexpectedly find their disability insurance benefits subject to an offset.  The frequency of offset provisions varies by policy type.  They are more likely to appear in group policies and employer-sponsored ERISA policies, and are rarely found in individual disability insurance policies.

Benefit offset provisions can have significant and often unforeseen financial repercussions, as illustrated by the recent account of a couple from Fremont, Nebraska.  As reported by WOWT Channel 6 News, Mike Rydel and his wife Carla were receiving monthly benefits under Mr. Rydel’s disability insurance policy with Cigna.  Mr. Rydel had suffered a stroke in the fall of 2015 that had left him incapacitated and unable to work.  The Rydels’ financial situation was made even more dire by Mr. Rydel’s need for 24-hour care, which prevented Mrs. Rydel from working as well.

In an effort to supplement his family’s income, Mr. Rydel applied for Social Security disability benefits.  When his claim was approved, the Rydels expected a much needed boost to their monthly income.  Unfortunately, due to an offset provision in Mr. Rydel’s policy, his monthly benefits under the Cigna policy were reduced as a result of the approved Social Security claim, and his family did not realize any increase in income.

The Rydels were understandably shocked when they were informed by Cigna that Mr. Rydel’s monthly disability insurance benefits would be reduced by the amount he was now receiving from Social Security, and that Cigna would be pocketing the difference.  Perversely, the only party that benefited from Mr. Rydel’s SSDI benefits was Cigna, which was off the hook for a portion of Mr. Rydel’s monthly benefits.  In response to an inquiry from WOWT, Cigna simply asserted that “coordination” of private insurance benefits and government benefits was a long-standing practice – an assurance that likely provided no solace to the Rydels.

The Rydels’ story highlights the importance of carefully reviewing every aspect of your disability insurance policy before signing.  Benefit offsets, policy riders, occupational definitions, and appropriate care standards in your policy can significantly impact your ability to collect full benefits if you become disabled.  You should review your policy carefully to determine if it contains any offset provisions that may affect your benefits.  If it does, you will need to take them into account when estimating your monthly benefits.

References:

http://www.wowt.com/content/news/Stroke-Victim-Suffers-Disability-Insurance-Set-Back-385758411.html

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #10)

In this series of posts, we have counted down the The 10 Biggest Mistakes Physician Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, as written about in disability attorney Ed Comitz’s article of the same name, published by SEAK, Inc., 2005.

MISTAKE NO. 10:  Tossing Out Application, Policy, and Claims Documents

From the time of application forward, physicians should keep copies of everything (including notes from meeting with the insurer’s sale representative or agent, the policy application, and the policy itself).  If the sales representative provided a letter or verbal representation that the physician jotted down, those notes can go a long way if the insurer says that the policy says something different.  Similarly, information that the physician provided on the application may have a bearing on his or her reasonable expectations at the time of purchase.

Action Step:  Physicians should keep all of the disability insurance papers and notes in an organized file.

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #9)

Continuing with the countdown of The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability (by Edward O. Comitz, SEAK, Inc., 2005):

MISTAKE NO. 9:  Blindly Accepting that Subjectively Diagnosed Conditions Are Not Covered

Disability insurers often deny benefits by insisting that the insured’s subjective symptoms do not provide objective, verifiabe evidence of disability.  In many cases, there is no provision or contractual requirement mandating that the insured submit objective evidence of disability.  Therefore, from the insured’s perspective, these insurance companies are merely trying to save money by generously interpreting policy language in favor of a claim termination.  Notwithstanding the subjective nature of a particular condition, the insured may be able to secure benefits with ample evidence bearing on the extent and severity of his or her limitations, which is far more important than providing a definitive diagnosis.

Action Step:  The severity and extent of the limitations are more important than an objectively verifiable diagnosis and must be fully communicated to a physician’s insurer.

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #8)

Next in the series of The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, excerpted from disability attorney Ed Comitz’s article of the same name, published by SEAK, Inc., 2005, is Mistake #8:

MISTAKE NO. 8:  Ignoring the Possibility of Surveillance

Insurers are likely to videotape or photograph physicians who have filed for disability insurance benefits.  Physicians who engage in any activities that they claimed they could not perform and are caught on tape are likely to have their benefits denied and the contract could be terminated.

Action Step:  Physicians should not compromise their policy benefits by submitting a fictitious claim.

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #7)

Next in the list of The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, excerpted from the article of the same name by disability insurance attorney Edward O. Comitz, and published by SEAK, Inc. (2005):

MISTAKE NO. 7:  Quantifying Time

Physicians should be wary of insurance companies asking them to compartmentalize in percentages what activities they were engaged in pre- and postdisability.  To the extent that there is any crossover, companies will often deny benefits or provide benefits for merely a residual disability.  It is important that physicians broadly describe their important duties—rather than their incidental duties—so that the insurer has a clear understanding of the thrust of their occupation.  For example, in response to a question about principal duties and the percentage of time spent on each duty, an anesthesiologist may be better off stating “100% surgical anesthesia” rather than compartmentalizing each and every incidental task (e.g., patient intake, supervising nurses during surgery, postoperative visits) into discrete percentages.  The reason is the insurer may erroneously consider an incidental task a “principal duty,” and therefore downgrade the amount of benefits.  For example, where a physician has duties as a businessman (e.g., supervising staff, overseeing payroll), the insurer may argue that the disabled physician can still manage his or her practice and is therefore only partially disabled.

Action Step:  Physicians should not quantify their time until after they fully understand the definitions of “principal duties,” “disability,” and “occupation” under their policy.

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #6)

[Excerpt from disability insurance attorney Edward O. Comitz’s article, The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, SEAK, Inc. (2005)]

MISTAKE NO. 6:  Engaging in Inadequate Communication with Treating Physician

Physicians should not discuss their claim or that they are considering filing for disability insurance benefit with their treatment provider until after they have had several visits.  Physicians are often reluctant to support claims for benefits if they question the motivations behind the claims.  A physician who has treated, without success, the physician making the claim will likely be more willing to cooperate.  It is also important that the physician making the claim communicate his or her symptoms and limitations to the treating physician in an organized and detailed manner so that all relevant information is recorded in the medical records, which the insurer will ultimately request.  When finally speaking to the treating physician about the claim, the physician should ensure that the treating physician understands the definition of “disability” under the insurance policy, so that he or she can accurately opine as to the inability of the physicians making the claim to work.

Action Step:  Physicians should fully discuss their condition with their treating physician to ensure supportive medical records and, after several appointments, work with him or her on submitting the claim for “disability” as defined in the policy.

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #5)

Mistake #5 in the list of The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, excerpted from disability attorney Ed Comitz’s article of the same name, as published by SEAK, Inc., (2005) is:

MISTAKE NO. 5:  Believing All Mental Conditions Are Excluded or Subject to Limitations

Most disability insurance contracts differentiate between mental and physical disabilities.  Most recent policies cut off benefits for psychiatric conditions after two or three years.  Insureds often blindly accept their carrier’s decision to deny or limit benefits based on these conditions without considering numerous relevant factors, including whether there are any physical aspects to the mental condition, whether the mental condition has a biological/organic cause, or whether another, covered condition was the legal cause of the disability.  Without exploring these issues in detail, insureds often blindly accept that certain conditions are limited or excluded from coverage when in fact they are not.

Action Step:  Physicians should understand their policy’s mental conditions limitation and work with counsel on submitting their claim in such a manner as to ensure payment of benefits.

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The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #4)

[Excerpt from disability insurance attorney Edward O. Comitz’s article, The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, SEAK, Inc. (2005)]

MISTAKE NO. 4:  Blindly Attending an Independent Medical Exam

After submitting their claim, physicians may be asked to submit to an “independent” medical examination by someone chosen and paid for by their insurer.  They may also be asked to undergo exams by someone other than a physician.  Before submitting to an independent medical exam or any other exam or evaluation, physicians must first ensure that their carrier has a right to conduct the exam per the policy language.  For example, a neuropsychological exam is conducted over several days by a psychologist, not a physician, and insurers often use the subjective findings from such an exam to deny benefits.  If the policy requires submitting only to “medical exams” or exams “conducted by a physician,” there is certainly an argument that a physician need not submit to neuropsychological testing.  Further, physicians may wish to be accompanied by an attorney or other legal or medical representatives who can monitor the independent medical exam.  Other considerations include receiving the examiner’s curriculum vitae in advance; limiting the scope of the exam to ensure that no diagnostic test that is painful, protracted, or intrusive will be performed; having the exam videotaped or audiotaped; and receiving a copy of all notes and materials generated.

Action Step:  Because the “independent” medical exam is a tool used for denying benefits where possible, physicians should work with an attorney to ensure that their rights are protected during this process.

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