For Doctors, Risk of Relapse Can Cause Total Disability

Because of the high-stress nature of their occupations and their ready access to pharmaceuticals, both physicians and dentists are at high risk of developing substance abuse issues.  In a recent disability insurance case, Colby v. Union Security Insurance Company & Management Company for Merrimack Anesthesia Associates Long Term Disability Plan, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recognized the challenges that doctors can face when they are disabled due to substance dependence.

The insured in this case, Dr. Colby, was a partner in an anesthesiology practice.  Like many anesthesiologists, she kept a demanding schedule, working 60 to 90 hours per week.  In 2004, her colleagues discovered that she had been struggling with chemical dependence after she was found sleeping or unconscious on a table in the hospital.  She tested positive for Fentanyl, an opioid used in her practice.

This led to the revelation that Dr. Colby had been self-administering opioids, and had become addicted.  Shortly thereafter, Dr. Colby entered inpatient substance abuse treatment.  As of January of this year, Dr. Colby had not resumed using Fentanyl.

When her drug dependence first came to light, Dr. Colby filed a claim with her disability insurer.  Even after completing her treatment, Dr. Colby feared that returning to the anesthesiology environment, where Fentanyl (along with many other drugs) was easily accessible, would lead to her relapsing.  However, the insurance company denied her claim for disability benefits.  The insurer argued that she had been discharged from substance abuse treatment, and that although she was still under a doctor’s care and feared a relapse, “a risk for relapse is not the same as a current disability.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals disagreed.  Judge Selya explained:

In our view, a risk of relapse into substance dependence—like a risk of relapse into cardiac distress or a risk of relapse into orthopedic complications—can swell to so significant a level as to constitute a current disability.

As this case demonstrates, doctors struggling with substance dependence should be cognizant of the fact that their occupation puts them at higher danger for relapse, and may contribute to their total disability from practicing.  If you are facing this situation, it’s important to talk to your treating providers, disability insurance attorney, and disability insurer about how your work environment affects your risk of relapse.

Review the entire Colby opinion here.

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