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.

 

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #3)

Continuing with the list of the Ten Biggest Mistakes Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, written by disability insurance attorney Edward Comitz and originally published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), is Mistake #3.

MISTAKE NO. 3:  Inadequate Documentation.

When submitting a claim and speaking with their carrier, it is important that physicians take notes to assist them in remembering what was said in the event that their claim is denied.  They should keep notes of all telephone conversations (including the date and time of the call, and what was said) and identify the person with whom they were speaking.  Every conversation with the carrier should be confirmed in a letter sent by certified mail so that there are no misunderstandings.  The “paper trail” may later be used as evidence to establish unreasonable treatment during the claim administration process.

Action Step:  Starting with their first telephone call to their insurer, physicians should document in detail their conversations and meetings, and confirm everything in writing, sent by certified mail..

The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #2)

Continuing with the list of The Ten Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make, as listed in disability attorney Ed Comitz’s article of the same name, published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), is Mistake #2.

MISTAKE NO. 2:   Misunderstanding the Definitions of “Disability” and “Occupation”

Because there is no such thing as a “standard” disability insurance policy, the definitions of “disability” can significantly vary.  Most physicians purchase “own-occupation” policies, which provide compensation following a disability that prevents the insured from performing the particular duties of his or her occupation.  Thus, the insured may be entitled to benefits even if he or she could in fact perform work of a different nature.  The central issue in many cases is the definition of “total disability,” which could variously mean that the insured cannot perform “all” or “every” duty of his or her occupation, or the “substantial and material duties” of his or her occupation.  Similarly, the term “occupation” may be specifically defined in the policy (e.g., “invasive cardiologist”) or may refer to the insured’s occupation immediately prior to the time that disability benefits are sought.  In the latter situation, if the physician reduces his or her hours in the months preceding claim filing, the insurer may consider his or her occupation to be part-time rather than full-time.  Similarly, the term “occupation” may be comprised not only of the duties of a physician’s specialty, but also of significant travel time, teaching engagements, or other areas in which the physician spends time or draws revenue.  For example, “occupation” may be defined as “internist/professor/business owner,” in which case the physician may not be “totally disabled” if he or she can still teach or perform management functions.

Action Step:  Physicians should read and fully understand their policy terms before filing a claim for benefits.

The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Disability Claim (Mistake #1)

We have been counting down the list of The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability, from disability insurance attorney Ed Comitz’s article of the same name, as published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), and have now reached the number one mistake.

MISTAKE NO. 1:  Failing to Consult With Counsel

Physicians who are considering filing a claim for disability insurance benefits are advised to meet with an attorney experienced in the area before submitting a claim for payment.  Disability provisions vary greatly in the language used, and coverage is often circumscribed and restricted by qualifying words and phrases.  Accordingly, each insurance policy must be individually reviewed to determine whether a particular claim is covered and, if so, how that claim is best presented to ensure payment.

Action Step:  Physicians should make a coordinated effort with the assistance of an attorney when interpreting their policy, presenting their claim, and providing subsequent information to their carrier.