What Happens If Your Plan Description Doesn’t Match Your Policy’s Terms?
Many people aren’t used to reading insurance policies. With their legal clauses, insurer-defined terms, and dry content, understanding them can be a challenge for insureds. For these reasons, disability insurers provide plain English summaries of their disability policies, both for marketing purposes and as a guide to benefits. But what happens if you rely upon the plan description in filing a disability claim only to be told that the actual policy language precludes your claim? Your insurer wouldn’t be alone in exploiting a situation where your plan description doesn’t match your policy’s terms.
In the recent case of Weitzenkamp v. Unum Life Insurance Company, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed such a discrepancy in a disability insurance policy and plan description. Susie Weitzenkamp was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression—all self-reported symptoms. Her summary plan description listed a twenty-four month restriction on disabilities due to mental illness and substance abuse. What the summary failed to mention, however, was that the policy also had a twenty-four month cap on benefits for disabilities primarily based on self-reported symptoms. Ms. Weitzenkamp suddenly found her benefits abruptly terminated.
On appeal, the Circuit Court noted that a summary plan description is intended to be a “capsule guide [to the plan] in simple language.” The relevant law required that the summary include “the plan’s requirements respecting eligibility for participation and benefits” and “circumstances which may result in disqualification, ineligibility, or denial or loss of benefits.” Because the summary failed to mention this important policy provision denying benefits for self-reported symptoms, it violated federal law. The court prohibited Unum from relying upon the policy provision in denying Ms. Weitzenkamp’s claim, reinstating her past benefits though still leaving her to prove her ongoing eligibility under the merits of the policy.
This case illustrates but a portion of the complexity in disability insurance cases. What can physicians do to protect themselves? It is important to thoroughly understand both your actual policy and the insurer’s marketing literature. Physicians should retain all insurer-provided materials from both before and after the purchase of their policy, and consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney should they need to file a claim.