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
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)