The Transition from Short Term Disability (STD) to Long Term Disability (LTD) Benefits

Disability benefit plans are often structured to provide two different types of benefits. The first is for short term disability or often just refered to as STD, which typically provides benefits for the first 3-12 months of disability.  After the conclusion of short term disability benefits, the claim is then transitioned for approval of long term disability benefits, also referred to as simply LTD. Often, the same insurer administers both the short and long term plan and the definition for eligibility of benefits is identical. However, many of our clients find that after the expiration of short term benefits, they do not continue to receive benefits and have to go through the approval process all over again to receive approval for their long term disability claim!

Unfortunately, this is a normal course of events. We find that even though a client has been approved as disabled under a short term disability plan, insurance carriers treat the long term claim as a new claim and require a new submission of new proof. One of the reasons we suspect that this transition is not “seamless,” (as may be promised) is that the employer funds short term benefits out of its own account, and for the benefit of its employees, whereas long term disability is funded with an insurance policy where the insurer is on the hook to pay benefits.   Ordinarily, insurers have no allegiance to employees.  Therefore, even though the definitions of disability are the same under the short and long term plan, it is more difficult to be approved for long term disability benefits.

As a result, when the claim is transferred to the long term disability unit, the insurance company may require new and additional attending physician and employer statements, updated medical records and claimant completed statements before it will evaluate the claim. This can cause a delay in long term disability benefits and even a denial of the claim, despite the fact that the same insurance company approved the disability claim just weeks before!

Trumpcare will cut mental health care and substance addiction treatment for 1.3 million people

Trumpcare, the Republicans’ proposed plan to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — also known as “Obamacare” — will cut mental health and addiction treatment for 1.3 million people, just as the country is struggling to cope with an epidemic of opiate addiction. The Washington Post reported on March 9, 2017, that House Republicans admitted under questioning by Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) that their ACA repeal-and-replace plan would remove a requirement to offer substance abuse and mental-health coverage that’s now used by at least 1.3 million Americans.

Substance abuse and mental-health services are among the “essential benefits” states are required to provide under the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, a program that provides health-care coverage to those who cannot afford it. As the article explained, if states opt out of providing those benefits, Medicaid recipients would not only lose coverage for mental-health care, but also coverage for care aimed at addressing substance abuse treatment, a critical area of care given the current drug overdose epidemic many states are dealing with. According to estimates by health-care economists, about 1.3 million Americans’ sole access to these services is through the ACA.

 

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Top 7 Benefits of the Affordable Care Act…Some of Which May Soon Disappear.

As health care litigators, we are often asked about the benefits of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA” aka Obamacare). The bottom line is that more people have received more comprehensive coverage through the Affordable Care Act because of the following measures:

  1. No preexisting exclusion. Health plans can no longer charge more or deny coverage to you or your child because of a pre-existing health condition like asthma, diabetes, or cancer. https://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/about-the-law/pre-existing-conditions/index.html
  2. Young adults can remain as dependents on their parents’ health plans until age 26. Young people generally do not have access to sufficient individual health plans and do not have careers that provide the opportunity for an employer based plan so the opportunity to remain on a parent’s health plan is a great benefit. http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2017/01/25/have-a-teenager-you-should-worry-about-aca-repeal/#4a89ca150604

Michigan District Court overturns denial of benefits by Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston

People often contact us asking how they can be approved for Social Security Disability benefits yet be denied by their insurance company. Another recurring question is how the insurer can rely on the opinion of a physician hired to perform a file review over the opinion of a treating physician. While insurance companies are allowed to make a decision that is different from the SSA and/or rely on their own file reviews in many cases, they cannot do so arbitrarily. In other words, they have to provide a reason why they rely on such information over other, perhaps more credible information.

A recent case decided by a district court out of Michigan addresses these questions and involves Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston. There is nothing groundbreaking about this court ruling but the court decision provides a good review of prior rulings in which other courts have assessed the value to be placed on SSA findings and the weight to be given to a reviewing doctor and vocational reports based solely on a reviewing doctors opinion.

In this case, the claimant had a long history of treatment for her lower back and thoracic spine dating back to at least 2006. Over the years she was able to manage the pain and continue working with treatment but as time went on her pain became less responsive to conservative treatment. Eventually, conservative treatment proved to be insufficient to control the pain.

Despite her doctors best efforts she had to stop working by June 2012 to undergo a lumbar fusion and was unable to return to work following the surgery because the pain was so severe. When she filed her claim, liberty requested that she complete activities questionnaires, which reflected her declining condition. She reported that she could not perform gainful employment due to pain in her back; leg pain; difficulty in sitting, standing and walking for any length of time. She also reported that she spent 14 hours a day in bed.

Concurrent with her application with liberty, she applied for SSDI benefits which were approved. Liberty also approved her claim and paid her benefits during the own occupation period but denied her benefits after the first 24-months of payments following a file review that determined she could work at a light-exertion level occupation.

Based on that file review, a vocational consultant found her capable of working at other occupations and her benefits were terminated in sept 2014.

She appealed, submitting a report from her primary care physician stating she could not work on a full time basis at any occupation due to her uncontrolled pain.
 
Liberty rejected this opinion and upheld its decision which led to litigation.
  
The court applied a de novo standard of judicial review and after reviewing the claim, the court found for the claimant. In addition to the treatment records the court gave great weight to the SSA finding based on a 2008 6th circuit court case which found that if: A plan administrator encourages an applicant to apply for SSDI benefits, financially benefits from the applicant’s receipt of SSDI benefits and then fails to explain why it is taking a position different from the SSA on the finding of disability, the reviewing court should weigh this in favor of a finding that the decision was arbitrary and capricious.

Since those factors were met and there was an absence of an explanation as to why Liberty accorded more weight to its reviewing doctor than to the treating doctor, the court placed heavy emphasis on the SSA determination.

The court also recognized the treatment records, which evidenced a clear pattern of pain and lack of improvement and found the treating physicians’ opinions were consistent with the medical evidence.

In regards to the reviewing doctor’s opinion, the court assigned less weight for several reasons: first, the reviewing doctor did not perform an in person examination of the claimant; also, the record showed that the doctor did not have all the available evidence when performing his review including pertinent records from 2011. Liberty also failed to provide the doctor with the SSA’s finding of disability.

Ultimately, this case is a good example of an inadequate review on the part of Liberty Mutual. It is important to remember that not every case will hinge on a Social Security decision and a Social Security finding of disability is not always weighed so heavily. The weight afforded to the SSA decision in this case had a lot to do with the inadequacy of Liberty’s review and the also the credibility of the claimant’s medical history.

If you have insurance, you need to know about the “notice-prejudice” rule!

Insurance denial, ERISA denial, claim denied
Every insurance policy requires that you give notice of your claim for benefits to the company before benefits can be paid.  It doesn’t matter if the claim is for medical services, disability benefits, life insurance, fire, flood, theft, etc. Obviously, notice and information about your claim is necessary before the insurance conpany can process and pay the claim. Policies also usually require that notice of a claim be given within a specified time period following the loss, for example, “30 days,” or “as soon as practicable,” or “as soon as reasonably possible,” etc.  Again, this is fair because evidence related to the claim is fresh, and most readily available nearer the time of the event.

But, what happens if you can’t, or don’t comply with the policy notice requirement?  What happens if don’t give notice until months, or even years after your claim accrued?

Good questions.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all. – Bill Clinton

Eating disorders are a serious public health concern in the United States and around the world. At least 30 million people in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life. And eating disorders don’t just impact women.  Approximately 10 million men in the United States will face an eating disorder in their lifetime. But despite the staggering number of people affected and the reality that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, eating disorders often live in the shadows and most people don’t get the help they deserve. Unfortunately, all too often people will not seek out treatment due to stigma, misperceptions, lack of education, diagnosis and access to care.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most prevalent eating disorders. These eating disorders and all other eating disorders will be in the spotlight from February 26th, 2017 – March 4th, 2017 when patients, families, practitioners, advocates and educators celebrate National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “It’s Time to Talk About It” and the goal is for more people to get screened and start getting the help they need.

From the famed Empire State Building in the east, to Los Angeles International Airport’s stylish, 100-foot, glass pylons in the west, 61 iconic landmarks in cities across the country will be lit in the signature blue and green colors of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to put a spotlight on the seriousness of eating disorders.

Resist the Urge to Submit a Quick Long Term Disability (LTD) Appeal – ERISA or Insurance Bad Faith

One of the most common mistakes we see with long term disability (“LTD”)  denials (ERISA and non-ERISA/bad faith) is claimants rushing to submit their appeal. The desire to move quickly is understandable:

  • You have no money coming in;
  • You are angry at the insurance company and want to give them a piece of your mind;

Make Sure Your Lawyer Knows the Law Controlling the “Standard of Review!”

Many of the “rules” governing ERISA claims are not contained in the statute itself, but rather are the result of judicial decisions interpreting ERISA. In the landmark case of Firestone v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of an ERISA fiduciary (including insurance companies!) to reserve “discretion” to decide eligibility for benefits under an ERISA plan. When “discretion” is granted to an insurance company or a claims administrator, a reviewing court does not decide whether or not the claimant is entitled to benefits under an insurance policy. Instead, a court is limited to deciding whether the insurance company abused its discretion or acted “unreasonably” when deciding the claim.   Under this standard of review, some courts have concluded they are compelled to uphold the insurer’s decision merely because there was some medical support for the decision. See, Carlo B v. Blue Cross Blue Shield, 2010 WL 1257755 (D. Utah, 2010 (It does not matter whether the Court agrees with the insurer or its physicians. The decision need not be the only logical decision or even the best one.)

After years of unfair decisions under this standard of review, some states, including California, have taken action. Effective January 1, 2012, the California legislature outlawed discretion in policies. California Insurance Code, Section 10110.6. The statute applies to any policy which “issued or renewed” after January 1, 2012 and which covered residents of California.  What this means is that courts can now actually look at the evidence and decide for themselves whether they think an insured person is entiteld to benefits.  This is called a “de novo” proceeding, meaning the court will look at the evidence “anew” instead of deferring to what the insurance company decided. (See one of our earlier blogs for more info: http://www.californiainsurancelawyerblog.com/2015/03/california_insurance_code_sect_1.html )

Insurance companies such as MetLife, Liberty Life, Prudential and others have tried making all kinds of arguments to avoid the impact of section 10110.6. Application of the statute can depend on the facts of the case, but, since January 1, 2012, Kantor & Kantor has been successful in persuading many Federal Judges, and even insurance company lawyers, to invalidate or ignore grants of discretion written into insurance plans. A number of other experienced ERISA practitioners have also been successful in this argument. To date, the statute has been applied in at least 15 court decisions in California.

What’s Going to Happen to Obamacare?

Donald Trump has just been sworn into office as this country’s 45th president, and Barack Obama is a private citizen once again. Now that Obama is gone, will his signature legislative achievement follow close behind him?

If conservatives have their way, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare, will be a blip in our nation’s history. Under Obama, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted more than 60 times to repeal the ACA, and during his presidential campaign Trump repeatedly vowed to get rid of it.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Many parts of the ACA are very popular, including the provisions that prevent insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and those that allow parents to keep their children on their coverage until age 26.

The pitfalls of doing your own appeal without talking to an attorney first.

Why pass on free personalized advice?

One of the people who contacted us this week was a woman who had her Long Term Disability benefits terminated by Standard Insurance Company after Standard had paid her those benefits for many years. Despite multiple surgeries, her symptoms had not improved. Each morning she takes powerful pain medications. Sometimes those medications offer enough relief to enable her to attend to daily functions, but often, they do not.

Either way, she was certainly not able to perform the duties of her job when Standard cut off her benefits. Nonetheless, Standard Insurance Company all of the sudden determined she had not provided sufficient proof of disability and terminated her Long Term Disability benefits. Thinking this was simply a misunderstanding, she appealed the denial on her own without speaking to an attorney first. After all she reasoned, Standard Insurance Company had told her all she needed to do was explain to them why she was still disabled.