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. 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.
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.
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.
 Casson v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 455 A.2d 361, 366-77 (Del. Super. 1982)
 North American Acc. Ins. Co. v. Henderson, 170 So. 528, 529-30 (Miss. 1937)
 Heller v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, 833 F.2d 1253 (7th Cir. 1987)