Articles Posted in LongTerm Disability (LTD) Insurance

The term “long haulers” has started being used to describe people who have not fully recovered from COVID-19 weeks or even months after first experiencing symptoms. Some long haulers experience continuous symptoms for weeks or months, while others feel better for weeks, then relapse with old or new symptoms. The most common lingering symptoms are fatigue, body aches, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, inability to exercise, headache, and difficulty sleeping.

A new Northwestern Medicine study published this week in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology analyzed 100 non-hospitalized COVID-19 long haulers and discovered 85% of patients experienced four or more neurologic symptoms which impacted their quality of life, and in some patients, their cognitive abilities. The study included 100 non-hospitalized COVID-19 long haulers from 21 different states who were seen in-person or via telehealth from May to November 2020.

The long haulers suffered persistent neurological issues, including brain fog, headaches, numbness/ tingling, disorders of taste and smell, and various myalgias. Additionally, 85% reported experiencing chronic fatigue. Among the long haulers who were in the study 47% also reported struggling with anxiety, stress, depression, and sadness. As a result, many patients experienced decreased quality of life and about half the patients in the study missed more than 10 days of work.

One of the most crucial pieces of evidence in supporting a long term disability claim is the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician that he or she is disabled.

Many physicians are more than happy to assist their patients with forms required by the LTD provider and in some cases, narrative accounts of their patient’s disabling condition.

Sometimes, though, even with the support of your physician, problems can still arise. Often, this is because of the office visit notes your physician makes with each of your visits. Phrases such as, “doing well,” “symptoms improved,” “responding well to medication,” while meant as shorthand by the doctor that her treatment plan is working, are often used by the insurance company to conclude that you are no longer disabled.

Autoimmune disease is a broad category of related diseases in which a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues and organs it was designed to protect. Normally, the body’s immune system protects it by responding to invading microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses. The immune system produces antibodies, which are special proteins that recognize and destroy the invaders. Autoimmune diseases occur when these autoantibodies attack the body’s own cells, tissues, and organs.

Autoimmune Facts:

  • There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases.

One of the most crucial pieces of evidence in supporting a long term disability (LTD) claim is the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician that he or she is disabled.

Many physicians are more than happy to assist their patients with forms required by the LTD provider and in some cases, narrative accounts of their patient’s disabling condition. Sometimes, though, the doctor is unable or unwilling to assist. There are a variety of reasons for this: lack of time, lack of compensation, misunderstanding of the level of involvement required by the doctor, employer/hospital rules preventing them, and in some cases, a disbelief that their patient is actually disabled.

If you have a disabling condition and you are making an LTD claim, or you are receiving benefits, your doctor’s participation in the process is essential. Without a doctor’s support, in most cases, your claim is finished. If your doctor has notified you that he or she will not be able to assist you with your claim, it is important to ask him or her to tell you the reason for their decision. If it is anything other than lack of belief that you are disabled, often, further information can change their minds. The offer of additional compensation for their time is a big help. Explaining that they will not have to do anything more than the forms or a letter – that they will not have to testify in court – goes a long way in changing minds.

If you have a disability insurance policy, you probably assume that if you’re unable to perform the duties of your job because of your medical condition, you’re entitled to benefits under your policy.

Not so fast! You may be surprised to learn that most disability policies don’t insure you from being unable to perform the duties of your job – instead, they insure you from being unable to perform the duties of your occupation.

What’s the difference? Well, as insurers will tell you, they are concerned about insuring people when they don’t know what those people are doing. There are too many jobs with individual specific duties performed in a variety of idiosyncratic ways for insurers to keep track of. As a result, they only insure the “type” of job you have, i.e., the job as it is typically performed in the national economy.

If an ERISA appeal for long term disability benefits is denied and the claimant pursues litigation, the appeal is likely to be mediated before going to trial with a judge. Indeed, most ERISA cases settle in mediation.

Here are some fundamental points to understand about mediation of long-term disability cases:

  • Mediation discussions are confidential. What you say in mediation cannot be used against you in court.

If a claim for ERISA disability benefits is denied or terminated, the claimant’s next recourse is to submit an administrative appeal to the insurance company. An ERISA long-term disability claim cannot be taken to court until the administrative appeals process is first exhausted. If the appeal is denied and the case proceeds to litigation, ERISA constrains the scope of evidence that is heard at trial and also limits the available remedies. (For this reason, ERISA is favorable to the insurance companies since it does not contain strong disincentives for denying meritorious claims).

It is important to understand that, with rare exceptions, the evidence submitted on appeal is the only evidence that will be considered in litigation—in other words, once the insurance company makes a final decision on an appeal, the file for litigation becomes closed. New supporting evidence does not get added during litigation and no witnesses are called to the stand to testify. The judge makes a determination based on the legal briefs submitted by the attorneys on both sides and a hearing at which the attorneys present arguments and answer any questions the judge may have. This makes ERISA litigation is a very particular type of litigation  governed by certain rules and limitations which make the process quite different from many other types of litigation such as personal injury.

For this reason, thoughtful preparation and submission of all relevant evidence for the administrative appeal is absolutely imperative. Appealing the denial of a disability claim is not just a matter of refuting the insurance companies’ reasoning for the decision or pointing out overlooked facts. Rather, it is the one opportunity to assemble the strongest possible body of evidence that can be presented in court if the appeal is denied.

When you start a new job that provides disability insurance, or accidental death and dismemberment insurance, most policies include language that states you will not have coverage for claims you make in the first 12 months if the claim is for an injury or illness that is a “pre-existing condition.” But what is a pre-existing condition, and how will insurance companies determine if you have one?

A pre-existing condition is generally defined as any medical condition for which you received treatment, care, advice, or a prescription from a medical professional in the 90 days before you started your new job. The precise language will differ from policy to policy, but that is the general idea. For some medical conditions, the application will be obvious. If you were in treatment for breast cancer in the three months before you started your new job, started a new job believing you were in remission, and then 8 months later found out that your cancer had returned, that would be a pre-existing condition and you would not have coverage. If you were in a car accident before you started a new job and treated with a chiropractor or in physical therapy for injuries, and eventually could not work because of those injuries and so went on leave within the first year of work, that would be a pre-existing condition. It’s also reasonably clear that if you treated with a doctor for a broken leg, or with a psychiatrist for anxiety before starting your new job and six months later you were hit by a car and went out on disability for internal injuries, your prior medical care would not be a pre-existing condition that would bar coverage for the accident.

There are other situations that are not so clear cut. If you were treating for back problems due to a slipped disc prior to starting work, and then were in a car accident six months into your new job and further injured your back, will coverage for that injury be barred by the pre-existing condition limitation? Your insurance company will almost surely argue that there is no coverage because the injury was a pre-existing condition. What if you had diabetes, and after a car accident lost a leg, in part because of complications related to your diabetes? Or what if you had been fully released to work after a prior injury and were not treating for it, but were titrating down on your pain medication during the 90-day period before you started work, and then your injury flared and you needed to go on disability?

Chronic pain can be related to a variety of conductions including joint issues, nerve damage, fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), spinal problems, post-surgical complications, and cancer. While certain diagnoses can be more clearly associated with a disabling level of pain, pain is usually a subjective symptom. For example, a person with degenerative disc disease will be able to show evidence of their diagnosis through an MRI or X-ray; however, this kind of imaging cannot necessarily measure what level of pain a particular individual is experiencing.  In some cases, people may experience a more severe level of pain than others with the same diagnosis. Pain may also not be clearly associated with a particular condition or diagnosis. Pain can be due to tangled combination of factors that may not be very well understood.

Consequently, although many disability insurance policies seek “objective” proof of disability, in some cases objective medical evidence simply is not available due to the nature of the condition. Even without the type of documentation that is typically considered objective medical evidence of disability (like lab tests and imaging scans), a person with chronic pain may very well still qualify for disability insurance benefits.

In fact, in a recent Kantor and Kantor victory in the case of Hamid v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the Northern District of California, the court reaffirmed that objective evidence is not required to prove disability. The court cited to prior case precedents to explain that, for medical conditions that are difficult to quantify through labs or imaging scans, benefits cannot be denied simply because quantifiable documentation is not available.

Unum is one of the biggest disability and life insurers in the United States, owning subsidiaries including Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company and The Paul Revere Life Insurance Company. Unum generates billions of dollars in revenue and has boasted high rates of growth over the past few decades. Unum has also built a bad reputation for unfair handling of disability benefits claims over the years. Their aggressive and unfair tactics to avoid paying benefits to insured individuals resulted in numerous lawsuits and class actions for insurance bad faith practices, with trial losses totaling well over $100 million.

On top of individual lawsuits and class actions, in the early 2000’s, insurance regulators undertook a multistate market conduct examination to investigate reports of wrongful practices related to delaying and denying legitimate disability insurance claims.  As a result, Unum entered into a multi-state settlement agreement in 2004 in which Unum agreed to review denied claims, implement new claims handling procedures, and pay a $15 million civil penalty. On top of the multi-state settlement agreement, California regulators undertook their own investigation and Unum’s California settlement agreement entailed an additional $8 million penalty as well as changes to policy provisions and claims handling procedures.

Some of the most striking problems with Unum’s handling of disability claims that insurance regulators identified included the following:

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