Can Your Disability Insurance Company Dictate The Medical Treatment You Must Receive To Collect Benefits? Part 1
Imagine that you are a dentist suffering from cervical degenerative disc disease. You can no longer perform clinical work without experiencing excruciating pain. You have been going to physical therapy and taking muscle relaxers prescribed by your primary care doctor, and you feel that these conservative treatments are helping. Like most dentists, you probably have an “own occupation” disability insurance policy. You are certain that if you file your disability claim, your insurer will approve your claim and pay you the disability benefits you need to replace your lost income and cover the costs of the medical treatment that has provided you with relief from your pain and improved your quality of life.
You file your disability claim, submit the forms and paperwork requested by the insurer, and wait for a response. To your dismay, your disability insurer informs you that its in-house physician has determined that the treatment prescribed by your doctor was inadequate. Your insurer then tells you that you should have been receiving steroid injections into your cervical spine, and tells you that if you do not submit to this unwanted, invasive medical procedure, your disability claim could be denied under the “medical care” provision in your policy.
You were not aware that such a provision existed, but, sure enough, when you review your policy more carefully, you realize that there is a provision requiring you to receive “appropriate medical care” in order to collect disability benefits. You think that your insurer is going too far by dictating what procedures you should or should not be receiving, but you are afraid that if you don’t comply with their demands, you will lose your disability benefits, which you desperately need.
This is precisely the sort of scenario presented to Richard Van Gemert, an oral surgeon who lost the vision in his left eye due to a cataract and chronic inflammation. Dr. Van Gemert’s disability insurance policies required that he receive care by a physician which is “appropriate for the condition causing the disability.” After years of resisting pressure from his insurers to undergo surgery, Dr. Van Gemert finally capitulated. Once Dr. Van Gemert received the surgery, you might expect that his insurer would pay his claim without further complaint. Instead, Dr. Van Gemert’s insurer promptly sued him to recover the years of disability benefits it had paid to him since it first asserted that he was required to undergo the surgery.
Unfortunately, “appropriate care” provisions, like the provision in Dr. Van Gemert’s policy, are becoming more and more common. The language in such provisions has also evolved over time, and not for the better. In the 1980s and 1990s, the simple “regular care” standard was commonplace. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, insurers began using the more restrictive “appropriate care” standard. And, if you were to purchase a policy today, you would find that many contain a very stringent “most appropriate care” standard.
These increasingly onerous standards have been carefully crafted to provide disability insurers with more leverage to dictate policyholders’ medical care. However, there are several reasons why your insurance company should not be the one making your medical decisions. To begin, if you undergo a surgical procedure, it is you—and not the insurance company—who is bearing both the physical risk and the financial cost of the procedure. Perhaps you have co-morbid conditions that would make an otherwise safe and routine surgical procedure extremely risky. Perhaps there are multiple treatment options that are reasonable under the circumstances. Perhaps you believe conservative treatment provides better relief for your condition than surgery would. These are decisions that you have a right to make about your own body, regardless of what your disability insurer may be telling you.
In the remaining posts in this series, we will be looking at the different types of care provisions in more detail, and how far insurance companies can go in dictating your care in exchange for the payment of your disability benefits. We will also provide you with useful information that you can use when choosing a disability insurance policy or reviewing the policy you have in place. In the next post we will be discussing the “regular care” standard found in most policies issued in the 1980s and early 1990s.
 See Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co. v. Van Gemert, 262 F.Supp.2d 1047 (2003).