10 More Legal Mistakes Professionals Make When
Filing a Claim for Disability (Mistake #3)

In an effort to provide professionals with more information about how the disability claims process works and identify some of the most common pitfalls for professionals filing disability claims, Comitz | Beethe attorneys Ed Comitz and Derek Funk have compiled an updated list of the 10 most common mistakes we are seeing physicians, dentists, and other professionals make when they file claims under the new post-2000 generation of disability policies (which are much more complex and stringent than the policies sold to professionals in the 1980s and 1990s).

In this post, we’ll be looking the common mistake of failing to watch out for the limitation provisions that insurance companies are adding to newer disability policies.

Mistake # 3:  Failing to Understand the Limitations in Newer Disability Policies

Professionals should carefully review their policies to make sure they understand the scope of coverage provided. An important consideration in evaluating a new policy now involves whether it imposes conditions on eligibility for benefits that conflict with those imposed by an existing policy. For instance, one policy may only pay total disability benefits if an insured is unable to work in his prior occupation and is working in another occupation (an “own-occupation” policy with a “work” provision), whereas another policy may provide benefits only if the insured is not working in another occupation (an “own-occupation” policy with a “no work” provision). Thus, if you are not careful and intimately familiar with the terms of your existing policy or policies, you can end up purchasing a new policy (and paying years of premiums) for coverage that is essentially worthless (because it is impossible to collect benefits under both policies at the same time). Some policies even have “offset” provisions that deduct the amount of benefits you receive if you receive disability insurance benefits from other sources.

It is also important to take note of limitations or exclusions in the policy that may limit recovery for certain conditions. Many policies contain limitations on benefits for disability caused by a mental illness or an illness with largely subjective symptoms that cannot be verified with objective testing. Other policies that provide for lifetime benefits may permit lifetime recovery for disabilities caused by “injury,” but place a limitation on disabilities caused by “illness or disease.”

Action Step:  When you receive the full policy, read it cover to cover and make sure you are aware of all of its terms, conditions, and limitations.

To read the rest of the 10 most common mistakes, click here.

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

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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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10 More Legal Mistakes Professionals Make When
Filing a Claim for Disability (Mistake #4)

In an effort to provide professionals with more information about how the disability claims process works and identify some of the most common pitfalls for professionals filing disability claims, Comitz | Beethe attorneys Ed Comitz and Derek Funk have compiled an updated list of the 10 most common mistakes we are seeing physicians, dentists, and other professionals make when they file claims under the new post-2000 generation of disability policies (which are much more complex and stringent than the policies sold to professionals in the 1980s and 1990s).

In this post, we’ll be looking at the common mistake of assuming you have a true “own occupation” policy, when in fact you have one of the new “own occupation” provisions that limit coverage and/or makes it harder for you to collect benefits.

Mistake # 4: Mistakenly Believing that They Have a True “Own Occupation” Policy

Most professionals know that they should purchase an “own occupation” policy that provides benefits if they are no longer able to practice their profession. In the past, these policies all contained virtually the same language, so it was easy for the agent to explain the coverage. What professionals don’t realize is that there are now several iterations of “own occupation” provisions and the differences are difficult to explain. Regardless, insurers market all of these as “own occupation” policies because they know that professionals are just looking for these two magic words. Unfortunately, the new policy variations typically contain additional requirements and limitations that restrict coverage and/or make it much more difficult to collect.

A true “own occupation” policy pays benefits if you cannot perform at least one of the material and substantial duties of your occupation and allows you to work in another occupation (that does not have any overlapping duties with your previous occupation). Under these policies, the insured is essentially allowed to “double-dip”—collect benefits under their policy and collect earnings from another occupation. These provisions used to be commonplace in the industry, but now you will likely need to specifically ask your agent for this type of coverage, and you may need to look into policies offered by multiple insurance companies before you find a true own occupation provision.

Some of the more common limitations and restrictions that are included in the new “own occupation” policies include: (1) “no work” provisions that only allow a claimant to collect benefits if he or she is not working in any capacity; (2) “work” provisions that require a claimant to be working in a new occupation before he or she can collect benefits; (3) provisions that offset the monthly benefit based upon the amount of income a claimant earns working in a new occupation; (4) provisions that require a claimant to prove that he or she is unable to perform all of the duties of his or her occupation; (5) provisions that require a claimant to prove that there are no workplace modifications that exist that would allow him or her to perform his or her prior occupation; and (6) provisions that initially provide “own occupation” coverage, but after a certain time frame (usually somewhere between 2 to 5 years) shift to an “any occupation” provision that only pays benefits if the claimant can demonstrate that he or she is unable to work at all, in any capacity, and allows the company to terminate benefits if they think the claimant could be working (even if the claimant is not actually working at the time).

Many of the professionals we consult with checked “own occupation” on their policy application but didn’t bother to read their full policy when it arrived, assuming that it contained true own occupation language. They are then surprised to learn that, upon closer inspection, although their policy contains the phrase “own occupation,” the policy that they have been paying premiums on for years does not actually provide true own occupation coverage.

Action Step:  Read your policy carefully and fully understand the definition of total disability before filing a claim.

To read the rest of the 10 most common mistakes, click here.

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

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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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10 More Legal Mistakes Professionals Make When
Filing a Claim for Disability (Mistake #5)

In an effort to provide professionals with more information about how the disability claims process works and identify some of the most common pitfalls for professionals filing disability claims, Comitz | Beethe attorneys Ed Comitz and Derek Funk have compiled an updated list of the 10 most common mistakes we are seeing physicians, dentists, and other professionals make when they file claims under the new post-2000 generation of disability policies (which are much more complex and stringent than the policies sold to professionals in the 1980s and 1990s).

In this post, we’ll be looking at the common mistake of not realizing that you can modify your occupation prior to filing a claim.

Mistake # 5: Misunderstanding the New Definitions of “Occupation”

Disability insurance policies generally define “occupation” as the occupation the insured was performing at the time he or she became disabled. This can be problematic for insureds who have reduced their work hours (see Mistake #6, below), or for those who have decided to focus on an aspect of their work that they would not consider to be their occupation, such as managing their medical practice rather than practicing medicine. Oftentimes, professionals dealing with a disabling condition will seek out other avenues of income, prior to filing, such as selling real estate, or teaching. While seemingly innocuous, these types of decisions can dramatically impact a professional’s ability to collect under his or her policy, because doing so allows the insurance company to argue that the professional has modified his or her occupation prior to filing and expanded his or her list of material job duties. For example, the insurance companies now often take the position that the professional is a part-time dentist and a part time realtor or professor. Or the company might characterize the professional’s occupation as part-time, rather than full-time, or say that the professional is really a physician and a “business owner” (as opposed to a practicing medical professional).

Action Step: Read your policy carefully and fully understand the definition of occupation before filing a claim. Do not make changes to your job duties prior to filing without first conferring with an experienced disability insurance attorney.

To read the rest of the 10 most common mistakes, click here.

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

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Disability Insurer Profiles: MetLife

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, or MetLife, is one of the largest insurance providers in the world. Originally founded in 1868, the company now employees almost 50,000 people, services over forty national markets, and reported $22.925 billion in revenue from premiums alone in 2017.[1] MetLife discontinued the sale of individual disability policies in March 2017 and now only sells group policies.[2]

If you have a MetLife policy and are considering filing a claim, it is important to recognize that a disability claim is an ongoing evaluation. Even if your claim is initially approved, the disability company has a right under most disability policies to continuously re-assess whether you remain “totally disabled.” Given the amount of money on the line, MetLife (like other insurance companies) will typically review its claims periodically, to see if there is any basis to terminate benefits. This can be problematic for physicians and dentists who are not anticipating this degree of ongoing scrutiny, and have not taken the time to understand how their policy works.

One common mistake that physicians and dentists make is going back to work in a new job, without understanding how that will impact their claim. For example, in Abena v. MetLife[3], a dentist filed a disability claim due to pain and numbness in his hands and arms. MetLife initially approved his claim, but roughly a year after his disability date, MetLife learned that the dentist has started a new job as the director of the dental clinic at a university.

MetLife investigated the new position, and determined that the job responsibilities of the clinic director at that particular university included providing direct patient care, which MetLife maintained was inconsistent with the dentist’s disability claim. Next, MetLife hired an investigator to conduct surveillance of the dentist over a three day period, and concluded that the dentist was able to engage in a variety of daily activities and tasks without any apparent limitations or problems. Finally, MetLife hired a doctor to review the dentist’s medical records, and the consultant doctor determined that the dentist had no physical impairments that would preclude him from practicing dentistry.

At this point, MetLife terminated the dentist’s claim. The dentist appealed, but MetLife upheld its decision on appeal. The dentist and his attorney eventually sued MetLife, but did not file the lawsuit until three years after the MetLife’s decision to uphold the termination. Because the dentist waited too long to file the lawsuit, the court dismissed the lawsuit without even considering whether the termination was improper.

These are just a few examples of things to be aware of if you have a MetLife policy or claim with MetLife. MetLife 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. And if your claim has been denied or terminated, you should talk with an attorney as soon as possible, to ensure that you do not forfeit your right to challenge the insurance company’s decision.

[1] https://investor.metlife.com/node/30501/html.

[2] https://www.metlife.com/support-and-manage/current-customers/individual-disability-insurance/.

[3] Abena v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., No. 06-C-495, 2007 WL 1575354, at *1 (E.D. Wis. May 29, 2007), aff’d, 544 F.3d 880 (7th Cir. 2008).

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

In previous posts, we’ve discussed chronic pain, including how chronic conditions can affect dentists.  Dentists in particular are susceptible to these conditions, as they are constantly required to employ sustained grips on instruments while holding awkward, unnatural positions during dental procedures.  As a result, dentists are prone to developing disorders that cause muscle pain, weakness, and numbness, including thoracic outlet syndrome.  In this post we will examine the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of thoracic outlet syndrome.

Overview

Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between the collarbone and the first rib (thoracic outlet) are compressed. This can result in pain in the shoulder, neck, and arm, as well as numbness in the fingers.

There are different types of TOS, including:

  • Neurogenic (neurological) thoracic outlet syndrome: This form of TOS is characterized by compression of the brachial plexus (a network of nerves that come from the spinal cord and control muscle movements and sensation in the shoulder, arm, and hand).
  • Vascular thoracic outlet syndrome: This form of TOS occurs when one or more of the veins (venous thoracic outlet syndrome) or arteries (arterial thoracic outlet syndrome) under the clavicle are compressed.

Symptoms

TOS symptoms vary, depending on where the compression occurs. When nerves are compressed, symptoms of neurogenic TOS include:

  • Muscle wasting in the fleshy base of the thumb (Gilliatt-Sumner hand)
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers or arm
  • Muscle pain or aches in the neck, shoulder, or hand
  • Weakened grip

Symptoms of vascular TOS include:

  • Bluish discoloration of the hand or lack of color (pallor) in the hands/fingers due to impaired circulation
  • Arm pain and swelling
  • Blood clot in veins or arteries in the upper area of the body
  • Weak or no pulse in the arm
  • Cold fingers, hands, or arms
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers
  • Weakness of arm or neck
  • Throbbing lump near the collarbone

Causes

TOS is caused by the compression of the nerves or blood vessels in the thoracic outlet, just below the clavicle. The cause of compression can include:

  • Anatomical defects, such as an extra rib or an abnormally tight fibrous band connecting the spine to the rib
  • Poor posture, dropping shoulders, or holding the head in a forward position
  • Trauma, such as a car accident
  • Repetitive activity in the upper extremities
  • Pressure on the joints from obesity or carrying a large amount of weight
  • Pregnancy
  • Heredity

Diagnosis

Diagnosing TOS can be difficult, as symptoms can vary greatly and are often subjective.  It is not uncommon for TOS to be misdiagnosed as other conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or cubital tunnel syndrome.  To diagnose TOS, a physician will perform a medical history review and physical examination. The examination will include an evaluation of the thoracic outlet, pulses, range of motion, and coloration in the arm, hand, or fingers.

Provocation tests are often used to rule our other causes of symptoms, and include the Roos Stress Test (also known as the elevated arm stress test), Adsons Test, Wright Test, and Eden Test. In these tests, a physician will ask the patient to move the arms, neck, or shoulder in various positions. Certain maneuvers can produce symptoms and blood vessel “pinching,” resulting in a loss of pulse.

A physician may also require additional screening to confirm the diagnosis of TOS, including:

  • X-rays: to reveal an extra rib or to rule out other conditions in the neck or spine that may be causing symptoms
  • CT Scan: to identify the location of the blood vessel compression
  • MRI: to determine the location and cause of the blood vessel compression or to reveal any congenital defects causing symptoms (such as an extra rib or an abnormally tight fibrous band connecting the spine to the rib)
  • EMG: to evaluate electrical activity of the muscles and identify any nerve damage
  • Nerve Conduction Study: to test and measure the nerves’ ability to send impulses to muscles in different areas of the body and to reveal nerve damage
  • Ultrasound: to see if the individual has vascular TOS or other vascular problems
  • Arteriography and venography: to look at blood flow and see if there is a compressed vein/artery or a blood clot

Treatment

Treatment of TOS can usually be successful with conservative measures. These treatments include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory medications, pain medication, or muscle relaxants
  • Clot-dissolving medication

More severe cases of TOS may require surgery, called thoracic outlet decompression.  This may include removing muscles or the first rib in order to spare injury to the affected nerve and blood vessels from ongoing compression. The surgeon may then repair or replace any damaged blood vessels. Vascular TOS is more likely to require surgery to resolve the symptoms.

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 doctor, 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
Medicine Net, www.medicinenet.com
Cleveland Clinic, www.clevelandclinic.org
Science Direct, www.sciencedirect.com
National Organization for Rare Disorders, www.rarediseases.org
Physiopedia, www.physio-pedia.com
John Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org

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10 More Legal Mistakes Professionals Make When
Filing a Claim for Disability (Mistake #6)

In an effort to provide professionals with more information about how the disability claims process works and identify some of the most common pitfalls for professionals filing disability claims, Comitz | Beethe attorneys Ed Comitz and Derek Funk have compiled an updated list of the 10 most common mistakes we are seeing physicians, dentists, and other professionals make when they file claims under the new post-2000 generation of disability policies (which are much more complex and stringent than the policies sold to professionals in the 1980s and 1990s).

In this post, we’ll be looking at the common mistake of reducing work hours instead of filing a claim.

Mistake # 6:  Reducing Work Hours Prior to Filing a Claim

Reducing work hours may seem like a logical solution for a professional experiencing a condition that is beginning to impact his or her ability to work. However, as noted above, working fewer hours per week for an extended period of time prior to filing can make it much more difficult to collect, because it opens the door for the insurance company to argue that the professional has modified his or her job duties and is no longer practicing full-time. Continuing to work post-diagnosis of a potentially disabling condition also raises malpractice concerns and cuts against the severity of the condition.

Delaying filing, while reducing hours and continuing to work may also reduce the amount of lifetime benefits an insured is entitled to. Many policies that provide for lifetime benefits now only pay benefits if a claim is filed before a certain age or pay a lower lifetime benefit amount if a claim is not filed before a certain date. Additionally, some policies now require insureds to work a certain number of hours per week to maintain coverage, and if an insured’s work hours per week drop below the minimum threshold, he or she may lose coverage altogether.

The decision of when to stop working and/or reduce work hours is one that is particularly difficult for professionals who suffer from slowly progressive or degenerative conditions. Many professionals also need to sell their practice as part of the work transition, and need to keep up the value in the meantime. In these situations, the timing of both the sale and your claim is critical.

Action Step: Consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney before reducing your work hours or selling your practice, particularly if you have a progressive or degenerative condition.

To read the rest of the 10 most common mistakes, click here.

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

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Disability Insurer Profiles: MassMutual

Founded in 1851, Massachusetts Mutual, more commonly referred to as MassMutual, is one of the oldest insurance providers still in operation today. Currently, MassMutual is also one of the largest providers of insurance policies, with assets valued at about $247 billion and a total revenue of $21.7 billion in 2017.[1]

If you have a MassMutual policy, it is important to carefully evaluate and understand your policy’s riders and evaluate whether they apply to the entire monthly benefit or a smaller subset of the monthly benefit. For example, in the case of Colt v. MassMutual[2], the policyholder, a licensed pharmacist, developed a debilitating bone disease and subsequently filed a disability claim under his policy with MassMutual.

Prior to the onset of his disease, the pharmacist had purchased a Cost of Living Rider and a Lifetime Benefits Rider. After the claim was filed, the pharmacist argued that the Cost of Living increases should continue for the remainder of the claim, while MassMutual argued that the Lifetime Benefits Rider did not extend the Cost of Living increases beyond age 65.

After a complex analysis, the court ultimately determined that the pharmacist’s Cost of Living Rider was extended by the Lifetime Benefit Rider. However, this case illustrates why it is important to read your policy carefully when you receive it, to ensure that you have a clear understanding of the scope of your coverage.

Similarly, if your policy has multiple riders that provide additional benefits or features to the policy and you later on increase the base benefit amount under the policy, you should pay close attention to whether the additional benefits and features are being extended to the benefit increase as well as the base policy amount.

These are just a few examples of things to be aware of if you have a MassMutual policy or claim with MassMutual. MassMutual 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.massmutual.com/~/media/files/financial%20documents/Statutory%20financial%20statements/Massachusetts%20Mutual%20Life%20Insurance%20Company/2017Q3_mmsub_stat.pdf.

[2] Colt v. Massachusetts Mut. Life Ins. Co., 29 Mass.L.Rptr. 547 (Super. Ct. 2012).

 

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The Challenges Faced By
Professionals Filing Mental Health Claims

With mental and substance abuse disorders being the leading cause of disability worldwide[1], insurance companies are very keyed into how they can save money on mental health claims. As we’ve discussed before, many policies, especially newer ones, contain mental health disorder and substance abuse limitations that expressly limit the amount of benefits the policyholder can receive (typically to 12 or 24 months), and some even contain exclusions that prevent policyholders from collecting benefits at for mental health conditions alltogether.

Even if your policy doesn’t contain these limitations, insurance companies subject mental health claims to close scrutiny, and some insurance companies have even established specialized departments that exclusively handle mental health claims.  These departments are made up of claims consultants who have additional, specialized training, vocational consultants, and in-house psychologists and psychiatrists. The primary goal of these departments is often closing claims by returning claimants to the work force.

While many professionals are able to return to work in their prior occupation after receiving mental health treatment, that is not always the best option for everyone. For some professionals—for example, the dentist with anxiety or the emergency room doctor with PTSD—even the thought of being forced to return to work can send them into a downward spiral, and undo any progress that they have previously made in therapy.

Oftentimes, the first thing that the insurer’s mental-health team will do is contact your providers and challenge the appropriateness of your treatment and/or push for a return-to-work timeline. If you’re treatment provider has never dealt with an insurance company before, he or she may feel pressure to push for unrealistic goals and/or exaggerate progress, which can in turn interfere with treatment and/or lead to a strained patient-therapist relationship. Consequently, it is important to find a treatment provider who will stand up to your insurer and provide a fair and realistic account of your progress. If an insurer is being particularly aggressive, it can also be helpful to have a disability insurance attorney step in and rein-in the scope of the insurance company’s investigation to an appropriate level.

 

Those suffering from a mental health disorder can find resources for immediate help at mentalhealth.gov.

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[1] 10 Facts on Mental Health, World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/mental_health_facts/en/index1.html.

10 More Legal Mistakes Professionals Make When
Filing a Claim for Disability (Mistake #7)

In an effort to provide professionals with more information about how the disability claims process works and identify some of the most common pitfalls for professionals filing disability claims, Comitz | Beethe attorneys Ed Comitz and Derek Funk have compiled an updated list of the 10 most common mistakes we are seeing physicians, dentists, and other professionals make when they file claims under the new post-2000 generation of disability policies (which are much more complex and stringent than the policies sold to professionals in the 1980s and 1990s).

In this post, we’ll be looking at the common mistake of underestimating the aggressiveness of the claim investigation.

Mistake # 7: Being Caught Off-guard by the Aggressiveness of the Claim Investigation

Many professionals do not understand what the claims process entails, and are caught off-guard by the insurance company’s aggressive tactics. One of the most common and first mistakes made by professionals filing a disability claim is assuming that the claims investigation does not begin until after they file the initial packet of claim forms.

While insurance companies used to provide their claim forms online, most insurance companies now require insureds to call the company to request the initial claim forms, so that they can conduct a recorded impromptu interview and collect as much information from you as they can before you have a chance to see the claim forms, review your policy or talk with an attorney about the proper scope of a disability claim investigation. The interviewer may request information about your condition, exactly what you can and can’t do, when you think you will be able to go back to work, the timeline of events leading up to the claim, your exact job duties, and plans for future employment. The interviewer may also ask about your daily schedule, so the company’s private investigators know where to find you when they conduct surveillance, which is now practically an inevitability.

Although the tone of the interview may seem informal and friendly, it is important to recognize that the company’s review of your claim begins from the moment of your first contact with the insurance company, and that, from that point forward, the insurance company will be searching for reasons to deny your claim.

Another common tactic that is now widely used by insurance companies is termed the “peer-to-peer” call. This is something that typically occurs behind the scenes, without any prior notice to the claimant, and involves the insurance company’s in-house doctors contacting your treating physicians directly, in an effort to obtain statements that can be presented out of context as a basis for denying the claim.

As just one example, the insurance company’s doctor may pressure your doctor for a recovery date post-surgery, even though it may be too early to know what will happen. The company’s doctor will keep pressuring until your doctor gives a generalized, estimated recovery date, which the insurance company then characterizes as a “return to work” date. If you are not back to work by then, the company will say your limitations are inconsistent with your own doctor’s opinion, and use the manufactured inconsistency as a basis for terminating your claim. When you go back to your surgeon for clarification, he or she often does not want to get involved any further with your claim, so you are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

As another example, the insurance company’s doctors often purposefully mislead your doctors regarding how disability is defined under your policy. If you have a true “own occupation” policy, you are entitled to total disability benefits if you can no longer perform the duties of your prior occupation. However, the insurance company’s doctors will ask your doctor to instead opine on broad, irrelevant questions (e.g. “Will the claimant ever be able to work again?”; “Is the claimant’s ability to perform basic activities of daily living impacted by the condition?”) in order to imply that you must essentially be home-bound in order to collect benefits. If you have not taken the time to explain how your policy works to your doctor (to the extent he or she is even interested), your doctor may unwittingly say something that prejudices your claim and, by the time you find out about it, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Action Step: Before calling your insurance company to request claims forms, consult with an experienced disability insurance attorney, review your policy carefully, and take the time to thoroughly prepare for the call.

To read the rest of the 10 most common mistakes, click here.

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

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How the Disability Claims Process Works, in a Nutshell

People often ask us “what is the claims process like?” and/or “what should I expect if I file a disability claim?” Obviously, each claim is unique, and how your particular claim will play out largely depends upon a wide range of factors, including your profession, your particular insurance company, the nature of your condition, when your policies were issued, and what the key definitions in your policy say, among other things. However, there are some basic aspects of the process that you should be aware of if you are considering filing a disability claim or wondering how the disability claims process works.

Obtaining the Claim Forms

The process for obtaining claim forms varies from company to company. Some companies provide forms online, and other companies require you to call in to request the claim forms. Recently, we have noted that several companies are starting to conduct information-gathering, recorded interviews when you call in for claim forms.

If you are not aware that this could be a possibility, you can end up being caught off-guard without a clear understanding of what your policies say or what the company can and cannot ask for when investigating your claim. Because of this, we advise that professionals at least speak with an experienced disability attorney before requesting claim forms so that, at a minimum, they understand how the process works before they make a call that can initiate a recorded interview.

Completing the Claim Forms

Typically, the initial packet of claim forms will contain several different forms, including paperwork that you must fill out, paperwork for your treating doctor, and oftentimes paperwork that must be completed by your employer. As the claim progresses, the company will require additional paperwork, which at the outset of a claim typically consists of a monthly progress report that must be completed by you and a monthly attending physician’s statement from your doctor.

Records Requests

After you submit the initial claim forms, your insurer will likely send a follow-up letter requesting additional records and documents. For professionals, this usually includes financial documents (such as tax returns), production codes, profit and loss statements, employment agreements, and practice sale documents, if applicable, among other things. Whether these requests are appropriate depends on the terms of your policy and nature of your claim (for example, whether you are filing a total disability claim, as opposed to a partial disability claim).

Interviews

In addition to the initial phone interview, the company may hire a field examiner to interview you in-person. This interview typically takes place at your attorney’s office, or at your home if you are not represented by an attorney. The company may also seek to interview your former co-workers and/or employers about your prior job duties, and may seek to interview your friends or family members about the impact your condition has had on your day-to-day life. Whether these types of interviews are appropriate depends on the particular issues at play in your claim.

Examinations

Almost every disability policy contains a provision that allows the company to have you examined as part of the claims investigation. However, different policies allow for different types of examinations. Some policies (typically older policies) only expressly provide for “physical” or “medical” examinations, while newer policies typically provide for a host of different types of exams, including mental exams, vocational evaluations, rehabilitation evaluations, functional capacity evaluations, and/or neuropsychological testing, in addition to physical exams. Again, whether an exam is appropriate depends on the particular facts of your case.

Surveillance

Many companies conduct surveillance at some point during the claim. This can include a review of your online presence (social media accounts, public record searches, etc.).

Elimination Period

Most disability policies require you to satisfy the policy’s elimination period before any benefits are due. Each policy will have a specific procedure for satisfying the elimination period, but in most instances you can only satisfy the elimination during periods of disability. So, put differently, even if your claim is approved at the outset, there will still be a period of time (e.g. 3 months) that you must be disabled before any benefits are due. This is important to keep in mind because many claimants expect to receive benefits right off the bat and don’t realize that, even in the ideal scenario where a claim is approved right away, it will be several months before they receive the first benefit payment.

This is not an exhaustive list of everything that can happen in the context of a disability claim, but it is a broad overview of some of the major aspects of the claims process. Some of the items in the list, such as the elimination period, apply to virtually every claim, while the likelihood of other items in the list occurring (such as medical exams) depends on the facts of your particular case.

Because of this, if you’re thinking about filing a claim, it is always a good idea to have someone who is familiar with the claims process (like an experienced disability insurance attorney) evaluate your specific situation, so that you can have a better sense of what to expect in your particular circumstances.

Policy Enhancements:
Why They Aren’t Necessarily As Good As They Sound

In prior posts, we’ve talked before about the different types of disability insurance, including group disability insurance.  Group policies are a subset of disability policies that are often made available to members of professional organizations. With group policies, the organization is the policy owner and the coverage amount and policy features are ultimately determined by the organization, not its members. Because the policy is owned by the organization, this also means that policy terms can change or be updated without your input.  When this occurs, these changes may be presented to you as a “policy enhancement.”

While “policy enhancements” sound like they’ll be an upgrade to a policy, sometimes they are quite the opposite. Policy enhancements can be beneficial to the policy holder. For example, the organization might decide that it wants to increase the policy’s maximum benefit period from age 65 to age 67.

Unfortunately, not all changes to group policies benefit the insured.  While most organizations don’t want to put their members in a worse off position, many organizations receive some degree of pressure from their members to reduce the premium costs of the policies they offer. Knowing this, disability insurers frame changes to the policy as a way to “cut costs” and, as a result, an organization might agree to allow the insurance company to add a more stringent care provision, add a mental/nervous disorder limitation, or insert a no-work provision in an effort to  reduce premium costs for its members. Additionally, policy language (especially the provisions found in newer policies) is often unduly complex and crafted so that it is difficult for a layperson to understand. Consequently, even a well-meaning organization may be misled into making policy changes without understanding the full impact a “policy enhancement” may have on disability coverage.

If you are a member of a group plan, it is important that you remain aware of any changes to the group policy and know its current terms.  Because policy enhancements change the terms of a policy, you should receive a notification in the mail if any changes are made. If you throw this notice away or place it in a drawer without reviewing it, you won’t know how the adopted change affects you (including whether can still rely on the policy for adequate coverage and, by extension, whether you want to continue paying premiums to keep the coverage in place).

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