Why You Can’t Blindly Rely on Your Agent to Choose the Right Policy for You

In earlier posts we’ve discussed how agents don’t have the authority to change, delete, or add provisions to a policy.  We’ve also discussed how most policy applications now contain language stating that you cannot rely upon representations made by agents regarding the scope of coverage, or eligibility for coverage.  Thus, while agents can provide helpful advice and help to point you in the direction of a policy that may fit your needs, it is ultimately up to you, the purchaser, to review your policy, become familiar with the provisions of the policy, and confirm that you are in fact purchasing the coverage that you expected to receive.

If you don’t take the time to do this, and blindly pay premiums without reviewing your policy first, you could end up paying for coverage that provides less protection than you thought you were getting when you applied for the policy.  For example, most physicians and dentists know that their disability insurance policies should be “own occupation”, meaning a policyholder is considered totally disabled (and eligible to collect benefits) when he or she can no longer work in his or her profession, versus being unable to work at all, in any profession.  In some policies, own occupation is further defined as being unable to practice in a particular medical or dental specialty (i.e. anesthesiologist, periodontist, etc.).

Quite often physicians and dentists decide to buy another policy, either because they let a previous one lapse, or because they want to purchase additional coverage as their income increases and they can afford higher premiums, and they ask their agent for a new policy with the “same coverage”.  This can be incredibly difficult or impossible to achieve, because over time policies have evolved to become more restrictive, and each company has variations on what they deem an “own occupation” policy.  Consequently, while your agent may present you with a policy that contains the phrase “own occupation”, it may not be a true own occupation policy at all.

For example, some policies are actually conversion policies, which mean they start out as “own occupation” policies, but after a certain time frame (e.g 2 years, or 5 years), they change to an “any occupation” policy, which means that, in order to continue receiving benefits, you would have to show that you can’t work at all.  This can be very difficult to prove, particularly if you worked in another capacity for all or some of the prior “own occupation” period.

Even if your agent does locate an own occupation plan with similar premiums and benefit amounts to an older policy, there may also be provisions that cancel each other out in the new and old policies.  One scenario we’ve seen is a policy containing the provision that a claimant must not be working (a “no work” provision) in their own occupation or another profession in order to collect benefits, while the second policy states that a claimant must not be working in their own occupation but must be working in another field in order to collect benefits (a “work provision”).  Under this scenario, in essence, one of the policies you’ve been paying years of premiums for is worthless, as both requirements cannot be met at once.

These examples highlight why it is important that you do more than just check an “own-occupation” box on your application and/or blindly rely on your agent’s assurance that a new policy is compatible and/or the same as an existing one.  If you end up with a policy you essentially cannot use, your recourse is limited, as insurance companies have gone to significant lengths to shield themselves from any liability based on an agent’s representations of a policy.  It is therefore far better to take the time to review your policy at the outset, before you pay years of premiums, to ensure that it provides the coverage that you applied for and need.

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

If you are a medical or dental professional and are thinking that you may need to file a claim under your disability policy, you may be wondering “Do I need to hire an attorney to file a disability claim?”

Given the voluminous, complex language of modern policies and the amount of money at stake, failing to consult with a lawyer is one of the biggest mistakes professionals make when filing a disability claim. An experienced disability attorney can explain the significance of key policy terms, and work with you to present the best claim possible while avoiding the pitfalls we have identified in our previous posts on this topic.

Ed Comitz’s article, “The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability,” published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), discusses ten of the most significant mistakes to avoid. The excerpt below explains the importance of consulting with an attorney before filing a long-term disability claim:

MISTAKE NO. 1:  Failing to Consult With a Disability Insurance Lawyer

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.

Insurers have laid plenty of traps throughout the claims process. They will use private investigators, video surveillance, social media platforms, and similar tactics to harvest information and set up your claim for denial or termination.  To learn more about these tactics and other mistakes to avoid, click here.

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

Any medical or dental professional considering filing a claim or weighing long-term disability insurance policy options should be familiar with two key policy terms: “total disability” and “occupation.”

Misinterpreting the definitions of “total disability” and “occupation” and/or falling prey to other common pitfalls can lead to having your claim denied or your benefits terminated.

Ed Comitz’s article “The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability,” published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), details ten of the most significant mistakes to avoid. The excerpt below explains the importance of understanding these crucial definitions in your policy:

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.

Even if you read how these terms are defined in your own policy, you may not realize the significance of the definitions if you do not have a full understanding of the claims process and/or you have never seen any other policies for comparison as a frame of reference. Being familiar with the several variations of “own occupation” policies being sold by insurers can help you determine whether you have a true own occupation policy.

To learn more about some of the tactics insurers use to deny claims and other mistakes to avoid, click here.

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

When you file a claim, at some point you will have phone calls with the insurance company regarding your claim. In fact, many companies are now conducting phone interviews when you first call in to request forms. Oftentimes these conversations will be recorded and incorporated into the insurance company’s claim file, but you likely will not receive a copy of the recording unless your claim is denied and you end up filing a lawsuit challenging the denial. And even if the conversation is not recorded, it likely that, following your call, the analyst will be making a note in the claim file summarizing what was said in the conversation.

Because of this, it’s important that you do the same, to ensure there is a complete and accurate record of your interactions with the insurance company. Keeping records of what was said in these phone calls and evading other common pitfalls can help protect your claim from denial and your benefits from termination.

Ed Comitz’s article “The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability,” published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), details ten of the most significant mistakes to avoid. The excerpt below explains the importance of establishing a paper trail with your insurer:

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.

While you may have jotted down the occasional note when speaking with your disability insurer, you should now have a greater appreciation for the importance of establishing a record of what your insurer says and how they treat you. Detailed notes of conversations with your insurer can help shield valid claims from wrongful denial and even help prove bad faith treatment.

To learn more about some of the tactics insurers use to deny claims and other mistakes to avoid, click here.

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

As part of your long-term disability insurance claim, your insurer may require you to attend an independent medical examination (IME), ostensibly to assess the validity of your filing. Many physicians, dentists, and other professionals (understandably) feel anxious and concerned about attending an IME set up by their insurer.

Ed Comitz’s article “The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability,” published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), details ten of the most significant mistakes to avoid. The excerpt below notes policy language to watch for and covers several helpful steps to consider before, during, and after your IME:

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.

Reviewing your policy’s requirements and preparing to attend an independent medical examination can make the process less stressful and protect valid claims from wrongful denial.

An IME is often just one part of your insurer’s broader investigation of your claim. To learn more about other common pitfalls to avoid, click here.

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

Many disability policies now contain provisions that limit coverage for mental conditions. However, each policy also contains specific definition of the types of conditions that are limited and/or excluded, and these definitions can vary greatly from policy to policy.

Ed Comitz’s article “The 10 Biggest Legal Mistakes Physicians Make When Filing a Claim for Disability,” published by SEAK, Inc. (2005), details ten of the most significant mistakes to avoid. The excerpt below explains why you should read your policy carefully, to ensure that limitation provisions in your policy are correctly applied to your particular situation:

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.

If you have submitted, or are considering submitting a disability claim, based on a mental illness, be sure to carefully review your policy’s language and do not simply assume that all mental conditions are excluded. And if your insurance company relies on one of these limitation provisions to deny your claim or limit your benefit period, you should consult with a disability insurance attorney and assess whether the insurance company’s decision is proper under the terms of your policy.

To learn more about the tactics insurers use to deny claims and other mistakes to avoid, click here.

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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.

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 post-disability.  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 #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 #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, verifiable 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 #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.