Why Does the Insurance Company
Want My CDT/CPT Codes?

When filing a claim, many dentists and doctors think that they will merely have to submit a form giving notice of the claim and have their doctor sign something verifying they are disabled. Most don’t realize or expect the breadth of their insurance company’s investigation and one thing that often surprises dentists and physicians is the company’s request for their CPT or CDT codes. Most newer insurance policies contain language that expressly allows insurers to request financial and practice information like this, and there are several things they are looking at when they request these codes.

Changes to Your Occupation/Job Duties

Most own occupation policies say they will consider you to be totally disabled if you can no longer do the “material and substantial” duties of your occupation. Insurance companies will look to CDT/CPT codes to see if you have changed or limited the types of procedures you do, and thus potentially modified your job description, prior to filing the disability.

When you file a claim, the company will typically be looking at what your duties were immediately prior to your reported date of disability. If you stopped performing more difficult procedures for an extended period prior to your date of disability, many companies will try to narrowly define your occupational duties as something less than what you perceive your occupation to be. For example, they might characterize you as a “dentist who doesn’t do root canals,” or a “surgeon who doesn’t do hip surgeries.”

Changes in Hours/Production

Similarly, reducing your work hours prior to filing a claim can impact your ability to collect. While your CDT/CPT codes won’t necessarily directly show the hours and days worked, they will show drops/increases in production and prompt follow-up questions from the insurance company if the production numbers don’t add up.

Additionally, some policies require an insured to work a certain number of hours a week, and cutting back on hours for an extended period of time prior to filing a claim could also lead your insurance company to classify your occupation as “part-time.” This is problematic because it becomes much harder to prove you can’t work part-time, versus proving you can’t work full-time.

Reviewing and understanding your policy, including what types of information your insurance company will request, is an important part of any transition plan. If you are considering filing a disability claim, you should consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney to learn more about your policy and any potential issues related to your particular claim.

 

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Unum Study Shows the Prevalence of
Mental Illness in the Workplace

In prior posts, we’ve discussed the mental health challenges physicians and dentists can face due to their high-stress and high-responsibility work environments. We often see doctors who are wondering if they can successfully file a claim based on a mental health condition, but are also reluctant to ask because they are concerned about what their colleagues/families/friends with think. Often, they feel like they are the only one struggling with these challenges but, in reality, they are not alone.

Unum, one of the largest disability insurers in the U.S., recently released a report[1] that looks at mental health challenges in the U.S. workplace. The report found that mental illness was one of the top causes of worker disability in the United States, with 62 percent of missed work days attributable to mental health conditions. Of those employees with mental health conditions:

  • Forty-six percent of those who missed work took an extended period of time off (over a week)
  • Two-thirds of employees with mental health issues went to work while experiencing symptoms (and reported a drop in productivity)
  • Forty-two percent of those who came to work were experiencing suicidal feelings

Despite the prevalence of mental health conditions (including anxiety, depression, and PTSD), sixty-one percent of the surveyed employees indicated that they felt there was a social stigma around those with mental health issues.

Although this study looked at data from employees, human resource professionals, mental health professionals, and research organizations that was not specific to the medical field, it is widely accepted that doctors are among those most likely to experience burnout during the course of their careers, with symptoms that overlap those of depression, anxiety disorder(s), and/or other mental health conditions. Unfortunately, stigma in the workplace and presenteeism may make doctors even more likely to ignore the symptoms of a mental health condition, push themselves to keep working, and/or avoid seeking support on the job and/or through treatment.

Ironically, we often see Unum (and other insurance companies) target mental health claims made by professionals due to the higher benefit amount of their policies and the more subjective nature of symptoms related to mental health conditions. They may pressure your treating provider for a return to work date, conduct surveillance to catch you in a happy moment that can be taken out of context, or have their in-house doctor question your course of treatment.

Further, many disability insurance policies now have substance abuse and mental health limitations provisions, which limit the amount of time a policyholder can collect for these types of conditions (usually to 24 months).  For these reasons, it is very important for physicians, dentists, and other professionals to have an awarenes of the challenges that may arise when filing a claim and understand what their policy says.

If you are considering filing a disability claim based on a mental health condition, you should consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney to learn more about your policy and any potential issues related to your particular claim.

[1] Unum report explores mental health challenges in U.S. workplaces, Unum, March 27, 2019.

 

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Arizona Now Matches
Other States’ Professional Licenses

In April 2019, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation making Arizona the first state to match other states’ professional licenses. This allows individuals whose jobs require licenses, including dentists and physicians, to automatically receive a license in Arizona, provided they held a similar license in another state for at least one year with no disciplinary action. Under the new law, Arizona’s licensing boards can only test for Arizona-specific information.

Proponents say it paves the way for skilled workers to relocate and bring their expertise to Arizona, without added expense and time delays before they can start working. Further, those in support say it could help to address the medical and nursing shortages in Arizona. Those against the bill cited potential public health and safety concerns, arguing that some states have easier licensing requirements and that new arrivals will compete with those currently practicing in Arizona, potentially driving down wages.

Other states have taken less sweeping steps to ease licensing requirements for relocating professionals, such as reciprocity agreements between states and, in the case of Utah, accepting licenses from other states, but only for military spouses.

Currently, the American Medical Association advises physicians, in general, to plan to wait 60 days between the date an application is submitted and the date a license to practice medicine is granted. The American Dental Association, while supporting individual state’s rights to regulate licensure for dentists, has also adopted policies on licensure issues, including the freedom of movement for dentists and standardization of clinical licensing examinations.

At the bill’s signing in Phoenix, the governor said an expected 100,000 relocating professionals will benefit from the legislation in 2019. Attorneys, private investigators, and security guards are exempt from the new legislation and are still required to complete the Arizona licensing process. As of this writing, the law is expected to go into effect August 2, 2019.

 

Sources:

Jonathan J. Cooper, Arizona becomes 1st to match out-of-state work licenses, Associated Press, April 10, 2019.

Lurissa Carbajal, Arizona becomes the first state to recognize all out-of-state occupational licenses, Cronkite News, April 10, 2019.

Howard Fischer, Ducey signs bill for state to recognize out-of-state-license, Arizona Capitol Times, April 10, 2019.

American Medical Association, Obtaining a medical license

American Dental Association, Licensure Overview

 

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Can You Collect On Your Specialty Specific Policy?
A Case Study

Disability claims filed by professionals can be complex, particularly when the dentist or physician’s underlying occupation is a specialty specific field.

If the claim involves a discrete practice area, disability insurers may use that as an excuse to drag their feet when making a claims decision. For example, they may make repeated requests for employer questionnaires, financial information and/or vocational examinations, among other things. Then, as time goes on, the financial pressures of being left with no income build, prompting some doctors to consider a return to work even though it’s not safe for them to be practicing on patients. Other doctors with specialty-specific policies reason that they can return to work in a different field and expect to receive their benefits as a supplement to the new job, only to find that their insurer disagrees that they were, in fact, a specialist, and refuses to pay total disability benefits.

This is what happened to Joanne Ceimo, M.D., a former invasive cardiologist from Scottsdale, Arizona who practiced at Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City, Arizona.[1] Dr. Ceimo had an own occupation policy and was practicing within her medically recognized specialty of invasive cardiology. In 1994, doctors diagnosed Dr. Ceimo with cervical degenerative disc disease, which made it increasingly difficult for her to perform surgeries and prevented her from performing on call duties. Eventually, she was forced to stop performing surgeries as well and instead began practicing general cardiology.

In her mind, Dr. Ceimo’s new job as a general cardiologist was substantially different than her prior job as an invasive cardiologist. However, Dr. Ceimo ultimately had to sue General American, along with Paul Revere and Provident (the other insurance companies administering her claim) for the benefits she was due under her policy. She filed her disability insurance claim in 1995 and, after a long, drawn-out claim investigation, was eventually denied benefits in 1998. Due to the long delay, Dr. Ceimo was forced to continue working as a general cardiologist to meet her expenses, even though it was bad for her health and working made her pain worse.

When they denied her claim, the companies asserted that Dr. Ceimo was not a specialty cardiologist because she had only spent six to ten hours on surgeries per week. The companies then stated that her occupation before her date of disability was that of a general cardiologist, and concluded she was not eligible for total disability benefits because she continued to practice in that capacity. In making this argument, the companies ignored the fact that Dr. Ceimo had practiced invasive cardiology from when she was licensed by the Arizona Medical Board in 1982 through the onset of her disability in 1995. The companies also failed to mention that their own medical records review classified Dr. Ceimo as an “invasive cardiologist.”

Dr. Ceimo and her lawyers filed a bad faith lawsuit in the District of Arizona against General American, Paul Revere and Provident.[2] In addition to arguing that the companies improperly interpreted her specialty, Dr. Ceimo and her attorneys also asserted that the companies improperly relied on biased in-house medical consultants and internal company practices geared towards denying high-dollar physician claims like Dr. Ceimo’s. The case ultimately produced a large verdict in favor of Dr. Ceimo, with almost $6.7 million in consequential damages, but it took nearly a decade of fighting before she obtained the benefits she was due under her policy.

Every claim is unique and the discussion above is only a limited summary of the court’s ruling in this case. If you are concerned that your company is improperly delaying a claims determination and/or targeting your claim for denial or termination, an experienced disability insurance attorney can help you assess your claim and determine what action, if any, needs to be taken.

[1] See Ceimo v. Gen. Am. Life Ins. Co., 2003 WL 25481095 (D. Ariz. Sept. 17, 2003).

[2] They alleged that all three companies were licensed to do business in Arizona, subject to Arizona’s bad faith laws and required to abide by the Arizona Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act.

 

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Sickness or Injury?
Why Does it Matter?

Some disability insurance policies have different rules for a sickness versus injury.  These differences can prove quite significant when it comes to your maximum benefit period.

While the difference between an injury and sickness may, initially, seem clear-cut, if you have certain disabling conditions (such as degenerative disc disease or carpal tunnel syndrome) whether you have a disabling sickness versus injury can be a very nuanced determination. For example, when a particular event causes a slowly progressive disease to become suddenly disabling to the point a dentist or doctor can no longer work in his or her occupation, the final determination may have to be made by a court.

This is what happened in a recent case before the Arizona District Court.[1] Dr. Wood was an anesthesiologist who practiced in Page, Arizona within the Banner health system. Dr. Wood suffered from degenerative disc disease in his lumbar and cervical spine, but continued to practice (a common phenomenon among physicians and dentists called presenteeism). In 2015, he and a team of nurses lifted a patient from the operating table to a hospital bed—a routine maneuver that he had done thousands of times before. This time, however, the maneuver resulted in intense radiating pain in his spine and he found himself unable to work. Dr. Wood then filed a claim with his insurer, Provident, due to the disabling back condition.

While Dr. Wood felt his disability was caused by an accident, making him eligible for lifetime benefits under the terms of his policy, Provident classified his disability as a result of sickness, and maintained he was only eligible for 48 months of benefits. Dr. Wood sued Provident and the court had to determine what “injury” meant.

Fortunately for Dr. Wood, in this case, the Arizona judge determined that the policy had a vague definition of “injury” and ruled the provision should be interpreted in Dr. Wood’s favor. The court turned to precedent set by the Arizona Court of Appeals, finding that Arizona does not distinguish between ‘accidental means’ and ‘accidental results.’”[2] The court also noted the Arizona Supreme Court’s findings that “accident” must be read in light of common speech, usage, and understanding of the average man.[3]  In the end, the court found that, under Arizona law, Dr. Wood became disabled when performing the lifting maneuver and he was eligible receive lifetime benefits.

Every claim is unique and the discussion above is only a limited summary of the court’s ruling in this case. If you are unsure of how your policy interprets sickness versus injury, an experienced disability insurance attorney can help you interpret this language and apply it to your particular situation.

[1] See Wood v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 2018 WL 2416190  (D. Ariz. May 29, 2018).

[2] Id. quoting Central Nat. Life Ins. Co. v. Peterson, 529. P.2d 1213  (Ariz. App. 1975).

[3] Id. quoting Knight v. Metro Life Ins. Co., 437 P.2d 416 (Ariz. 1968).

 

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What is an Independent Medical Exam?

An independent medical exam (“IME”) is an exam conducted by a doctor to verify whether you are truly disabled under your disability insurance policy’s terms.  These IMEs are rarely “independent”, and the doctors conducting them are almost always selected and paid by the insurers. In this post, we will explain what you can expect during an IME, and how you can protect yourself during the IME process.

What Can I Expect During an IME?

The IME doctor will likely begin by conducting an interview to learn about your medical history, the nature of your job, your symptoms, your treatment to date, and your daily activities.  During the interview, the doctor will be looking for signs that you are not telling the truth or that you are exaggerating your symptoms and limitations.  The doctor will pay attention to your demeanor, body language, and general appearance in order to assess your credibility.  The doctor will also compare your reported symptoms and limitations to your medical records, claim forms, and daily activities in an attempt to find inconsistencies.

Typically, the IME will largely consist of a physical examination, and the doctor may also require objective testing, such as x-rays, MRIs, or EMGs.  The doctor will often begin by conducting a general checkup, taking height/weight measurements, listening to your heart and lungs, testing your blood pressure, etc.  The doctor may then perform tests that focus on your disability and require you to provide subjective indications of pain and discomfort. He or she may ask you to bend, lift, or perform simple physical movements, depending on the nature and location of your condition.  Again, the doctor will be looking for inconsistencies or any signs that you might be exaggerating your symptoms.

After the IME, the doctor will complete a report that summarizes the findings of the exam.  The doctor will opine as to the extent of your disability, your ability to return to work, and recommended treatment or further testing.

How Can I Protect Myself in the IME Process?

As explained above, IMEs can be used as a tool for the insurance companies to deny or terminate disability benefits. Fortunately, there are ways you can protect yourself and ensure that you are treated fairly before, during, and after the IME.

Before the IME:

  • Review your policy. Most insurance policies do have a provision that allows the company to require you to submit to a physical exam.  However, these provisions are sometimes unclear as to the exact type examinations that are allowed.  Review the terms of your policy to make sure that your insurer can require you to undergo an IME.
  • Complete intake forms in advance. Your doctor will most likely ask you to complete intake forms, including questionnaires that outline your symptoms and medical history.  If you are nervous or hurried, you may forget to include important information.  Filling out the forms in advance allows you to answer each question carefully and accurately.

During the IME:

  • Bring a friend. If possible, bring a friend or family member to the IME. Not only can your friend provide moral support, but they will also serve as a witness to the exam.
  • Take notes. If possible, take notes during the IME to remember what testing was performed or what types of questions were asked. When you leave, write down your impressions and any issues you think you need to follow-up on.
  • Be cooperative and open.  Be patient and polite with the doctor.  Answer questions in a straight-forward and truthful manner, and if you do not understand something, let the doctor know. While you should be cooperative, this does not mean you need to do anything that causes you pain or injury. You know your body and limitations best, so if something the doctor asks you to do will cause you pain, let him or her know.
  • Discuss your symptoms fully and honestly. Do not minimize your symptoms and do not be afraid to complain.  It is important that your pain levels and other symptoms are documented as accurately and thoroughly as possible.
  • Connect your symptoms to your job duties. Make sure you discuss how all of your conditions impact your ability to practice safely and effectively. Give specific examples of how the conditions interfere with your practice (e.g., you cannot sit or stand for long periods without pain; you cannot manipulate dental instruments due to numbness in the fingers, etc.).

After the IME:

  • Get a copy of the report. After the exam, contact your insurer to ask for a copy of the IME report.  Review the report and compare it to your notes and recollection of the IME.  If anything needs to be clarified or there are any inconsistencies, contact your attorney and/or disability insurer as soon as possible.

If you have been scheduled for an IME, you may want to get an experienced disability insurance attorney involved.  An attorney can protect your rights during the IME process by finding out what the disability policy requires, limiting the test to certain parameters, studying the examiner’s credentials, recording the exam, accompanying you to the exam, and reviewing the final report for accuracy.

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Can You File a Disability Claim for Vision Problems?

It’s no secret that dentistry is hard work, requiring concentration, precision, visual acuity, depth perception, and quick reaction time if there is an emergency situation [1].  In prior posts, we have discussed how, as a result of these demands of the profession, musculoskeletal conditions are all too common in dentists, and often lead to dentists needing to file disability insurance claims. Similarly, a dentist who undergoes changes to his or her vision, whether via injury or disease, faces the very real possibility that he or she may need to step away from practicing dentistry early. In fact, one study showed that sight disorders were the second most common reason dentists asked for help (34.7% in females, 32% in males)[2], and the same study showed that sight disorders were recorded in 45.7% of the female dentists participating in the study and 48.5% of the male dentists, with eye injuries being the most common reported reason for seeking help.

Some eyesight injuries/impairments experienced by dentists may occur on the job, through physical hazards (radiation, artificial light) or chemical hazards (dental materials, including amalgam and dental cement particles, equipment, disinfectant, etc.).[3] Diseases of the eye are also not uncommon as one ages, and older dentists may find it increasingly challenging to effectively practice when faced with an eye disease, especially during procedures that require a significant degree of hand-eye coordination (e.g. root canals, crown procedures, etc.).

Some of the most common eye conditions in adults include age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, central retinal vein occlusion, retinopathy (due to diabetes), macular edema, glaucoma, and retinal tears and detachments. Many of these conditions can cause symptoms that can limit a dentist’s ability to practice safely and effectively (e.g. blurred vision, floaters, halos around lights, double vision, difficultly seeing in low or bright light, etc.), and over times some can even result in partial or total blindness. In addition, there are several lesser-known genetic eye conditions that can have equally devastating effects on a dentist’s ability to safely practice, including retinitis pigmentosa, choroideremia, Best disease, and cone rod dystrophy, among others.

Whether sight impairment and/or vision loss occurs through a common or rare disorder, vision problems are often slowly degenerative and progressive. In some instances, there may be ways to acceptably compensate for the vision impairment, whereas in other instances the impairment can be severe enough that it is obviously disabling. However, like other slowly progressive conditions, there is often a significant gray area between these two extremes that can be difficult to navigate if you do not have an understanding of how the disability claims process works. Dentists facing a progressive eye condition must carefully (and constantly) balance the need to keep their practice running, support their families, and continue the job they love against their duty to keep their patients safe and the risks of board complaints and/or malpractice lawsuits.

As a result, we’ve often seen dentists try to continue working even after a serious diagnosis by reducing their hours and/or the types of procedures they perform; however, doing so can hurt your chances to collect under a future disability claim, as this can undercut the severity of a claim and re-define the job duties, potentially making it much harder to establish total disability under the terms of your policy. Because of this, if you are a dentist with an eye condition that could potentially be disabling in the future, it is a good idea to have someone who is familiar with the claims process (like an experienced disability insurance attorney) evaluate your situation and start preparing a transition plan so that, if things progress to the point where you do have to file a claim, you are prepared.

These posts are for informative purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with and diagnosis by a medical professional. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above and have yet to consult with a physician do not use this resource to self-diagnose. Please contact your doctor immediately and schedule an appointment to be evaluated for your symptoms.

 

References:

Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
National Eye Institute, https://nei.nih.gov
U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov
Retina International, http://www.retina-international.org
American Academy of Ophthalmology, https://www.aao.org
American Society of Retina Specialists, https://www.asrs.org

[1] Dhanya Muralidharan, Nusrath Fareed, & M. Shanthi, Musculoskeletal Disorders among Dental Practitioners: Does It Affect Practice?, Epidemiology Research International, Vol. 2013, Article ID 716897 (2013)

[2] Marin Vodanovic, Slavica Sovic, & Ivan Galic, Occupational Health Problems and Dentists in Croatia, Acta Stomatol Croat., 2016 Dec; 50(4): 310-320

[3] Id.

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“Do You Have a True ‘Own Occupation’ Policy?”

As a dentist, you probably have purchased at least one disability insurance policy, and you probably sought out “own occupation” coverage. However, in our experience, many dentists do not understand what their policy actually says or realize that there are several variations of “own occupation” policies. Additionally, many of the newer disability policies being sold to dentists have particular requirements and “rules” that must be followed in order to qualify for benefits.

Our latest article with Dentaltown Magazine discusses some of these pitfalls and explains why it is important to know what your policy says before filing a claim. Read the full article at Dentaltown today.

https://www.dentaltown.com/magazine/article/7481/do-you-have-a-true-own-occupation-policy



Doctor Money Matters Podcast
Q & A with Ed Comitz, Esq.
What Every Physician Should Know About Disability Claims

Ed Comitz recently sat down with Dr. Tarang Patel, host of the popular Doctor Money Matters Podcast, to talk through some of the most common questions physicians have about filing disability claims, such as:

  • What should a physician look for in a disability policy?
  • How hard it is for a physician to collect disability benefits?
  • Do I need a lawyer to file a disability claim?
  • What is the disability claims process like?
  • If I have an “own occupation” policy, can I work in a different occupation and still collect disability benefits?
  • What are the most common pitfalls that lead to physician’s claims being denied?

Click here to listen to Part 1 of the Podcast: https://www.doctormoneymatters.com/episode44/ and here to listen to Part 2: https://www.doctormoneymatters.com/episode45/.

Episodes can also be accessed on www.drmoneymatters.com, and via iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and other podcast platforms along with Facebook and YouTube.

 

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What is the Effective Date of My Disability Policy?

The “effective date” of a policy is the day your policy becomes enforceable. While this may seem like a simple concept, it is not always as straightforward as you might think. Understanding the date your policy became effective may require you to read several different provisions together. Additionally, if you apply for benefit increases at a later date to increase your policy’s monthly benefit, this can further complicate matters because, depending on the terms of your policy, you can end up with multiple effective dates for the same policy (corresponding to each benefit increase to the base amount).

Here is an example of a provision defining the effective date of a policy (taken from an actual policy):

————————————————————————————————————————————

EFFECTIVE – Coverage is Effective when this Policy is issued and delivered to You provided the first full premium is then paid and all answers on the application are true and complete as if made at the time of delivery.

Coverage is Effective on the Issue Date if a premium was paid at the time of the application; the Conditional Advance Premium Receipt was given at that time; and this Policy was issued at standard rates exactly as applied for.

Additional coverages are Effective on the Monthly Anniversary on or after the date We issue the new Policy Specifications containing the coverage, subject to payment at the initial premium. If the initial premium is not paid when due, the coverage will be treated as never having been Effective and new Policy specifications will be issued showing this fact.

————————————————————————————————————————————

Under this provision, there are three possible effective dates. First, the policy’s coverage will be effective when the policy is issued and delivered, as long as the first premium was paid and the application was accurate when it was submitted.

However, the provision alternatively states that the policy can be effective on the “Issue Date.” In this scenario, the policy will be effective on the “Issue Date” if: (1) a premium was paid at the time the application was completed and submitted; (2) a receipt for this payment was given to the policyholder at that time; and (3) the rates in the policy are exactly what were applied for. But what is the “Issue Date?” This is also separately defined in the policy:

————————————————————————————————————————————

ISSUE DATE – The date the Policy Specifications are printed. Subsequent Policy Specifications carry their own Issue Dates.

————————————————————————————————————————————

Finally, if the policyholder purchases additional benefits after the original policy has been issued, there is a different effective date for this new coverage (i.e. additional coverages are effective on the “Monthly Anniversary” on or after the new policy specifications are issued, as long as the first premium is paid). This requires the policyholder to understand what “Monthly Anniversary” (another separately defined term) means:

————————————————————————————————————————————

MONTHLY ANNIVERSARY – [This date is] computed from the Policy Date shown in the Policy Specifications…. The Monthly Anniversary is the same date in each succeeding month as the Policy Date.

————————————————————————————————————————————

So, as you can see, under some policies, determining when your coverage becomes effective (and/or whether benefit increases apply to your claim) can be particularly complicated and depend on the particular facts at play. Disability insurance policies—particularly newer disability policies—are complex documents, and insurers often take advantage of this complexity when denying claims. If you are having difficulty understanding your policy’s provisions, an experienced disability insurance attorney can help you interpret confusing policy language and apply it to your particular situation.

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Disability Insurer Profiles: Unum

Unum, originally called Union Mutual, was founded in 1848. Over the years, Unum has merged with additional companies such as Colonial Life and Provident (which had acquired Paul Revere) to form one of the largest insurance companies in America.[1] In 2017, Unum’s total revenue reached $11.3 billion, with total assets of $64 billion.[2]

In 2004, Unum was the subject of a multistate market conduct examination which identified the following inappropriate claims handling practices: (1) excessive reliance on in-house medical staff; (2) unfair evaluation of attending medical examiner notes; (3) failure to evaluate the totality of the claimant’s medical condition; and (4) an inappropriate burden placed on the claimants to justify eligibility for benefits. Following the 2004 investigation, Unum was required to reform its claims practices and pay a fine of $15 million. Unum was also required to reassess certain denied claims stretching over a seven year period. It is estimated that compliance with the settlement cost Unum around $120 million.[3]

If you are a dentist or physician with a Unum policy and are thinking about filing a disability claim, you should be prepared for an in-depth evaluation of your occupational duties. When a disability claim is filed by a professional, the amount of money at stake is significant. One way for the companies to save money is to deny the claim. Another is to maintain that the claim is not a “total disability” claim, but rather a “residual disability” claim, so they only have to pay a fraction of the full monthly benefit amount.

Whether a claim is a “total” or “residual” disability claim often come down to how the duties of your pre-disability occupation are defined in the context of your claim. Then, the insurer assesses whether it can argue that you can still perform any of those duties, taking into account what your medical records report regarding your limitations and any post-disability job or volunteer activities you may be engaging in. Even if your policy allows you to work in another occupation and still collect benefits, the insurance company may argue that your new job has overlapping job duties with your prior occupation, and therefore you are only partially disabled.

For example, in Ogborne v. Unum[4], a dentist filed a disability claim with Unum after suffering a ligament injury to his right index finger. His doctors told him that his injury would be slow healing, and eventually told him that his injury was permanent. Unum denied his claim, stating that he had given untimely notice of the claim and that the dentist was not “totally disabled” because his particular injury only prevented him from performing “two types of procedures.” Unum also relied on the fact that the dentist had returned to work and was making more money than he had before the injury.

The dentist and his attorneys sued to challenge the denial, and the court determined that Unum was improperly interpreting the definition of “total disability” under the policy, which defined “total disability” as “the inability of the Insured to perform the duties of his regular occupation.” The court observed that “[t]his definition is susceptible to two different, yet reasonable, interpretations: namely, that the insured is totally disabled if he cannot perform either more than one of his pre-injury duties or all such duties.” Then the court determined that the ambiguous language should be construed against Unum, as the drafter of the contract.

Next, the court determined that the dentist had, in fact, produced evidence demonstrating that he was unable to perform several of the duties of dentistry, including root canals, periodontal work, and root scaling. Ultimately, the court ordered Unum to overturn the denial, but it took several years and a favorable decision from a judge to get Unum to pay benefits.[5]

These are just a few examples of things to be aware of if you have a Unum policy or claim with Unum. Unum policies are not all identical, and they are updated frequently. Your policy may or may not include the provisions mentioned above. If you are considering filing a disability claim, you should consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney to learn more about your policy and any potential issues related to your particular claim.

 

[1] https://www.unum.com/about/corporate/history.

[2] https://investors.unum.com/Cache/1001235181.PDF?O=PDF&T=&Y=&D=&FID=1001235181&iid=103324.

[3] https://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2004/11/18/47854.htm.

[4] Ogborne v. UNUM Life Ins. Co. of Am., No. 3:04CV7231, 2006 WL 2505905, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Aug. 28, 2006).

[5] It should be noted that this particular case was also decided under Ohio law. As the law regarding how disability policies are interpreted varies from state to state, this case could have come out differently in a different jurisdiction.

 

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Disability Insurer Profiles: Standard

Standard Insurance Company (also branded as “The Standard”) is one of the largest disability insurance companies in operation, with over $4.3 billion collected annually from premiums.[1]

If you have a Standard policy, you will want to pay close attention to how disability is defined under the policy, as Standard policies can contain provisions that shift from “own occupation” coverage to “any occupation” coverage after a certain period of time.[2] Because of this, Standard will sometimes approve a claim initially, but then reassess and terminate the claim when the more stringent “any occupation” provisions kicks-in later on.

For example, in Pringle v. Standard Insurance Company, Standard initially found the claimant to be disabled due to bilateral shoulder pain, bilateral knee pain, and numbness in his legs, feet and toes. Later on, after the “any occupation” definition replaced the “own occupation” definition of disability, Standard terminated the claim (and subsequently denied the claimant’s appeal of the claim termination) even though the claimant’s treating physicians had all opined that he could not work.

In support of its termination decision in Pringle, Standard relied on memos produced by its physician consultants after file reviews of the medical records. Notably, while other companies often only have one doctor conduct a file review of the record when evaluating whether to deny a claim, Standard in this case paid three doctors of various specialties to review the record and author peer review reports. Accordingly, if you have a Standard policy, it is important that you have supportive doctors and accurate and up-to-date medical records that support your claim, because you may have to go up against multiple physician reports if your claim is denied.

Another tool that Standard uses is the peer-to-peer call, where it assigns a doctor to contact your treating physicians to discuss your claim. This can be problematic, because the doctors hired by Standard (and other insurers) are often adept at asking trick questions, and don’t always explain the significance of how key terms like “own occupation” or “total disability” are defined in your particular claim. After the call, the insurance company’s doctor will typically prepare a letter “summarizing” the call in a way that favors the insurance company, in the hopes that your doctor (who is likely very busy) signs off on it without reading it carefully.

In the Pringle case, mentioned above, Standard’s doctor conducted this sort of call and the follow-up letter to the primary care doctor stated, in part, “you indicated the claimant was a ‘muscular guy’ and that, from your perspective, the claimant could function at a sedentary capacity as people in wheelchairs and who have had amputations are capable of working at a sedentary capacity.” According to the case record, the primary care doctor ended up signing off on this statement, even though it is arguably inconsistent with what the primary care doctor stated in his prior records and opinions (raising the question of whether he, in fact, read it before signing and sending it back to Standard). Ultimately, in Pringle, the court reversed the termination and required Standard to pay back benefits, but it took several years of costly litigation in order to get the denial reversed and the benefits reinstated.

These are just a few examples of things to be aware of if you have a Standard policy or claim with Standard. Standard policies are not all identical, and they are updated frequently. Your policy may or may not include the provisions mentioned above. If you are considering filing a disability claim, you should consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney to learn more about your policy and any potential issues related to your particular claim.

[1] https://www.standard.com/sites/default/files/2017annual_statement_sic.pdf.

[2] See, e.g., Pringle v. Standard Ins. Co., No. 3:18-CV-05025-RBL, 2019 WL 912297 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 25, 2019).

 

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The Importance of Reading Your Policy

In previous posts, we have discussed why it is important for professionals to be actively engaged in choosing their disability policies. While agents can provide helpful advice, it is ultimately your financial well-being on the line, and ultimately up to you to review your policy, become familiar with the provisions of the policy, and confirm that you are paying for the coverage that you expected to receive.

The case of Jacobs v. Chadbourne[1] illustrates the importance of reading your policy. In Jacobs v. Chadbourne, Gene Jacobs purchased disability insurance from Unum through the services of an independent broker. Two years later in 1988, Jacobs asked his broker about adding lifetime coverage to his policy, and Unum issued Jacobs a “Lifetime Total Disability Benefit Rider.” This rider stated that Unum would pay benefits if Jacobs’ disability begins before age 65 and continues until age 65. However, Jacobs was reportedly unaware at the time that this rider also stated that his maximum monthly insurance benefit would decrease 10% for each year after age 55 and until age 65.

In 2003, Jacobs called Unum to confirm his benefits in his disability policy. Unum faxed a letter outlining Jacobs’ benefits, which provided the policy’s issue date, the monthly premium, and the maximum monthly benefit. Notably, this letter did not mention the lifetime rider or the 10% reductions described in that rider.

In 2011, Jacobs submitted a claim for total disability benefits based on a date of disability at age 64. Unum accepted his claim and began paying benefits to him, which were subsequently reduced because of the restrictions in the lifetime rider. Jacobs sued Unum and his broker (Chadbourne) for their failure to mention the lifetime rider’s restrictions in the 2003 letter, and argued that he should be entitled to 100% of the benefit amount because he didn’t know about the percentage reductions outlined in the rider.

The Court held that, because Jacobs had the policy and lifetime rider in his possession, he was responsible for knowing the contents of his policy. The Court also found that Unum and Chadbourne had not misrepresented his coverage amounts or otherwise perpetrated fraud or injustice in the 2003 letter.  Even though his broker had failed to explain the lifetime rider’s restrictions when Jacobs first purchased the coverage in 1988, and even though Unum had failed to even mention the lifetime rider when Jacobs asked about the benefits in his policy in 2003, the Court determined that Jacobs should not be rewarded for failing to read his policy.

This case highlights the importance of reading your policy and fully understanding its provisions.  Oftentimes, marketing materials and policy summary sheets only outline the benefits of the policy, and you have to read the fine print to have a full understanding of the limitations of the policy. If you are considering purchasing a policy, you should not accept coverage or pay premiums for a policy until you have thoroughly reviewed and understand what you are paying for.

[1] Jacobs v. Chadbourne, No. 17-12868, 2018 WL 2068648 (11th Cir. May 3, 2018).

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Disability Insurer Profiles: Mutual of Omaha

Mutual of Omaha (also known as United of Omaha Life Insurance) was founded in 1909 and is now one of the largest insurance carriers in the United States, with an operating income of $554.8 million and revenues of $8.7 billion in 2017.[1]

If you have a claim with Mutual of Omaha, you may be asked to produce “objective” evidence of your disability.  Sometimes, this is an express requirement of the policy. In other instances it is simply a question asked on the claim forms (for example, an attending physician statement). Or sometimes it is question asked in a peer-to-peer call from the insurance company’s doctor to your doctor. Regardless of how it comes up, characterizing a claim as being based on purely “subjective” reports (as opposed to being based on “objective” evidence) is a common tactic that Mutual of Omaha (and other insurance companies) use to deny and terminate claims.

For example, in Schatz v. Mutual of Omaha[2], a nurse filed a disability claim due to chronic back pain. Notably, at the time she filed for disability, the nurse was working as a medical review nurse for Mutual of Omaha. Nevertheless, Mutual of Omaha denied her claim and refused to pay her benefits under her policy.

In fact, when the nurse and her attorney sued Mutual of Omaha to challenge the denial, the fact that she worked for Mutual of Omaha ended up hurting her case, to some extent, because the court assumed that Mutual of Omaha understood her particular job duties. Consequently, the court excused Mutual of Omaha’s failure to conduct a detailed inquiry into the physical demands of her position—an omission that otherwise may have proved significant.

In addition, Mutual of Omaha claimed that the nurse’s medical records were not “consistent” or “conclusive,” pointing to a statement from the nurse’s long-time treating physician stating that his opinion that she should not work was not based on “some new objective finding” but was based on the nurse’s reports that “she couldn’t tolerate the pain, that she couldn’t do it and it wasn’t getting better.”

Similarly, the physician selected to perform an independent medical exam stated that, although the nurse reported “multiple subjective complaints,” the physical exam was “essentially normal.” In light of these statements, the court ultimately held that Mutual of Omaha’s denial of benefit was proper, under an abuse of discretion standard.

These are just a few examples of things to be aware of if you have a Mutual of Omaha policy or claim with Mutual of Omaha. Mutual of Omaha policies are not all identical, and they are updated frequently. Your policy may or may not include the provisions mentioned above. If you are considering filing a disability claim, you should consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney to learn more about your policy and any potential issues related to your particular claim.

 

[1] https://www.mutualofomaha.com/our-story/newsroom/article/mutual-of-omaha-reports-2017-financial-results.

[2] Schatz v. Mut. of Omaha Ins. Co., 220 F.3d 944 (8th Cir. 2000).

 

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Unum Study Shows an Increase in
Musculoskeletal & Joint Disorder Disability Claims
Over the Past 10 Years

As we have discussed in previous posts, musculoskeletal disorders are common among dentists because the profession requires dentists to perform repetitive movements and hold static positions for long periods of time.  Unum, one of the largest private disability insurers in the U.S., recently released the results of a ten-year review of its disability claims, showing that both short and long term disability claims for musculoskeletal issues and joint disorders have increased significantly.

According to Unum’s internal statistics, long term disability claims related to musculoskeletal issues have risen approximately 41% over the past ten years, and long-term disability claims related to joint disorders have risen approximately 24%.  In that same period of time, short term disability claims for musculoskeletal issues have increased by 24%, and short-term disability claims for joint disorders have risen 29%.

Unum no longer sells individual disability insurance policies, so the profitability of this block of business is reliant upon premiums received from existing policyholders (or costs saved by denying/terminating claims).  Musculoskeletal claims made by physicians, dentists, and other professionals in particular are intensely scrutinized, and often targeted for denial or termination, both because of the increasing number of claims and the difficulty claimants often face in trying to prove up their conditions (which often have primarily subjective symptoms that aren’t often verifiable through a medical exam, or via tests like MRIs or EMGs). In musculoskeletal claims insurers may request that physicians and dentists undergo tests such as independent medical examinations (IME) or functional capacity evaluation (FCE), or the insurer may conduct surveillance in order to find manufacture a basis for denying or terminating a legitimate claim.

Given the rising number claims based on these conditions, Unum and other insurers may subject them to even higher scrutiny.  For this reason, physicians, dentists, and other professionals must be aware of the obstacles they can face when filing a claim.

References:

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180503006409/en/Ten-year-review-Unum%E2%80%99s-disability-claims-shows-trends.

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