On April 28, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued deadline relief and other guidance under Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to help, among other groups, disability plan participants who are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, also referred to as the coronavirus outbreak.

The Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, and the Internal Revenue Service issued a joint notice explaining the extension of time frames for healthcare coverage, portability, and continuation of group health plan coverage under COBRA, and time frames to file a benefit claim or appeal of denied claims.  They also issued COVID-19 FAQs for Participants and Beneficiaries that address a number of common questions concerning health and retirement benefits.

The final rule published by EBSA and submitted to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) for publication contains information of the extension of certain timeframes under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code for group health plans, disability and other welfare plans, pension plans, and participants and beneficiaries of these plans during the COVID-19 National Emergency.

The past few months have heralded an unprecedented situation. Millions of Americans are being laid off as COVID-19 shuts down businesses throughout the nation. This is frightening for everyone.  It is doubly difficult for workers who have physical or mental limitations.  For those workers, the specter of finding a new job in this economy, one that can accommodate their often significant limitations, may be overwhelming.

Workers experiencing health issues — including cognitive issues or mental illnesses — who have been having difficulties performing their jobs because of those limitations but have been fighting through them, may well be among the first to be laid off as underperformers. While these workers are in fact impressive in their drive to keep working in the face of daunting health issues, that very refusal to admit defeat may result in unemployment and a lack of income for them.

If you are among these workers, now is the time to evaluate whether a disability claim makes sense for you. While you still have access to your job-related insurance, you can preserve some of your income and access to health insurance.  If you have ongoing medical issues for which you have already been treating that significantly impact your ability to work, be it physical pain, chronic illness, depression, anxiety, or auto-immune issues, talk to your doctor about whether he or she would recommend disability for you.

The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted the lives of millions of Americans in many ways and has taken its toll physically and mentally on millions of Americans across the country. But for people who suffer from mental health issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new wave of panic, chaos, stress, and uncertainty.

More than 2 million Americans are estimated to be affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (“OCD”), according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Nearly 7 million people in the U.S. are affected by generalized anxiety disorder and about 6 million people in the U.S. are affected by panic disorder. Fear and anxiety about COVID-19 can be overwhelming and cause stress in both adults and children.

Stress during COVID-19 might include:

The effect of COVID-19 on the lives of every American cannot be overstated.  What we cannot know yet is how those effects will continue into the future.  We buy insurance to protect us in the event of future calamities. A variety of different types of insurance could potentially be triggered by the varying effects of the disease.  As it can be hard to know what the future could hold, the points below summarize the different ways your insurance could be involved in COVID-19 repercussions in the months and even years ahead.

It is difficult to know with certainty the range of long term health issues that could be caused by COVID-19, as the virus has only plagued us for approximately six months. Doctors predict the long-term effects will be similar to other coronaviruses like SARS.  While 80% of sick patients had “mild” cases, of the 20% who did not, they could experience a variety of long term effects.  COVID-19 survivors are expected  to follow the path of severe respiratory issues often seen after recovery from other respiratory illnesses.  That could mean lung fibrosis, reduced lung capacity and difficulty breathing and fatigue. Preliminary data out of China demonstrates that 20% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had heart damage. Patients also experience increased blood clotting.  Early studies from Asia show that COVID-19 attacks T-cells in a manner similar to HIV. Doctors are also finding that close to half of those hospitalized for COVID-19 have blood or protein in their urine, which is an early indicator of kidney damage, and up to 30% of patients in New York and Wuhan lost some level of kidney function. Liver damage, intestinal damage, and neurological malfunctions have also been reported.

Health Insurance

In this unprecedented time of COVID-19, one thing hasn’t changed: the disparity between medical and mental health care. As a physician is quoted in the New Yorker article, Why Psychiatric Wards Are Uniquely Vulnerable to the Coronavirus by Masha Gessen: “What has really kept me awake at night is that there is always, always less consideration for psychiatric services than for medical services.”

The fact is that mental health treatment is different, it requires patients to decidedly not self-isolate but to be in community for everything from group therapy sessions to meals. Those differences make it harder to treat mental health patients in a global pandemic where isolation and distancing is part of prevention. Health insurers are challenged to accept this new norm, as temporary or permanent as it might be, and adjust its coverage requirements to the reality of evolving treatment settings and protocols.

If you or a loved one is experiencing difficulties working with your insurance company, please call us at 800-449-7529 for a free consultation with one of the attorneys who specializes in getting individuals the mental health care they deserve.

 

Over the years, courts deciding ERISA cases involving accidental death due to autoerotic asphyxiation have issued mixed opinions as to whether benefits should be payable. In a recent decision, Wightman v. Securian Life Ins. Co., No. CV 18-11285-DJC, 2020 WL 1703772 (D. Mass. Apr. 8, 2020), a district court upheld the denial of accidental death benefits due to the insured’s death caused by autoerotic asphyxiation gone awry.

Plaintiff Anne Wightman sued Securian Life Insurance Company after it denied the accidental death benefit claim filed as a result of her husband, Dr. Colin Wightman. This policy expressly excluded death when caused directly or indirectly by, among other things, “suicide or attempted suicide, whether sane or insane . . . intentionally self-inflicted injury or attempt at self-inflected injury, while sane insane” and “bodily or mental infirmity, illness or disease.”

Dr. Wightman had been in therapy since the late 1990’s for his interest in sexual asphyxia. Dr. Wightman told his wife about his interest in “sex-related strangulation” in 2007 after he engaged in a sexual encounter that led to a complaint to the police, and Dr. Wightman losing his job. Dr. Wightman sought mental health treatment as a result from June 2007 through April 2010. He also was prescribed medication to help treat his addiction, which he took through 2015. The court noted that records from his mental health treatment highlighted Dr. Wightman as having “high risk sexual behavior [that] has led to possibility of charges for sexual assault.”

An employee who becomes disabled while covered by an employer-sponsored disability plan may qualify for short-term disability (STD) benefits and then long-term disability (LTD) benefits, based on the length of the disability and the terms of the plan. However, some LTD policies require that the employee not only apply for STD, but “exhaust” it, meaning receive the maximum amount of benefits allowed under the policy, before they may pursue LTD. If an employee received all but one day of the full STD benefit, they may still have to go through the appeals process or risk eligibility for the more valuable LTD benefit.

Kantor & Kantor was recently retained by a client, who we will refer to as John Smith for anonymity.  Mr. Smith was employed by a large corporation as a Material Handler who was responsible for all supplies and materials needed to manufacture medical devices.  Unfortunately, he became disabled by degenerative disc disease and painful spondylosis of his lumbar spine.  In addition, he suffered from sciatic nerve pain in his back.  His painful conditions necessitated medications which also caused side effects and impacted his functioning.

Mr. Smith’s company’s disability plan claim involved the situation described above, except that his STD claim was terminated just a few weeks before he received the maximum duration of benefits.  He unsuccessfully appealed his STD denial on his own before hiring the law firm.  In evaluating his STD claim and his potential LTD claim, the attorneys identified the following language in his LTD policy:

Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone to some degree, and that includes the insurance industry and the people who rely on insurance to protect themselves from disaster.

Fortunately, the California Department of Insurance has been active in an effort to protect policyholders who are affected by the pandemic. As we already reported, on March 30 the DOI directed health insurance companies to increase access to services delivered via telehealth during the current state of emergency.

On April 3, the DOI took even more significant action. It issued another notice, this time directed at all insurers doing business in California, regarding claim deadlines. The DOI instructed all insurance companies to stop enforcing policy or statutory deadlines on policyholders for claims or coverage until 90 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency has ended.

Millions of Americans have lost jobs — and often the health coverage that came with those jobs. Millions of Americans had their work hours reduced or have received drastic pay cuts, so monthly premiums that may have been manageable before are now out of reach. It is important to understand your options and take action right away, so you don’t have gaps in health insurance coverage.

First, find out when your coverage is ending. You may have coverage until the end of the month you’re laid off or longer, depending on your employer. After your employer’s coverage ends, you can usually continue your employer’s coverage (but pay much higher premiums) or buy a policy on your own. Your best choice depends on each policy’s premiums, coverage, provider network – and what medical needs you and/or your family members have.

Here are some things to consider when evaluating your options.

On April 8, 2020 Kantor & Kantor Partner Elizabeth Hopkins and Karen L. Handorf of Cohen Milstein, filed a friend-of-the court brief in the Supreme Court for Phyllis Borzi and Dan Maguire, two former, high-ranking Department of Labor officials.

The brief supports a number of States that successfully challenged a newly-enacted federal regulation, which runs contrary to the requirement in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that women in healthcare plans be provided free access to preventive health services.

Under the challenged regulation, virtually any employer may simply disregard the ACA requirement that healthcare plans provide cost-free contraception for women enrolled in such plans, and thereby prevent enrolled women from receiving this congressionally-mandated preventive health service.

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