Your Doctor's Opinion May Not Matter
We are taught from the very beginning to trust our doctors. The trust component of the physician-patient relationship is one of the most important aspects of choosing from whom you take medical advice. After all, if you don't trust your doctor, how can you rely on his or her medical opinion?
So why, when your doctor declares you are “disabled” and can no longer work, is the disabilityinsurance company allowed to ignore that opinion?
In 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling that long-term disability insurance companies do not have to give any deference to the opinions of the treating physician when evaluating a disability claim. When Kenneth Nord, a material planner with Black & Decker, went to see his doctor about hip and back pain, he was told he might have degenerative disc disease. After confirming the disease with an MRI, Kenneth was advised by his doctor to stop working at his “sedentary” job.
Following the advice of his doctor, Nord stopped working and applied for disability benefits. He was quickly denied and then filed his appeal. His doctors and Black & Decker's human resources department filed all the documents to support his claim. The insurance company administering the claim sent Nord for a second opinion from one of their doctors. While the doctors agreed that Nord had degenerative disc disease, they also thought he could take pain medication and be capable of sedentary work as long as he did “some walking interruption in between” work.
He appealed this decision, but it was denied, so he went to the courts.
The Court of Appeals reviewed the case and decided that the insurance company had to justify its rejection of the treating physician's opinion. Because the insurance company had made no attempt to reject his opinion, the Court of Appeals declared that Nord should win.
But then the Supreme Court heard the case. After a full briefing and arguments, the Court held that a disability plan did not have to give any special weight to the opinion of the treating physician. The Court reached this decision by reasoning that nothing in the ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) or the Department of Labor's regulations mandated that the insurance company give any special deference to the treating physician.
Even after the Supreme Court admitted that, “The validity of a claim to benefits under an ERISA plan is likely to turn on an interpretation of the terms of the plan at issue,” the Court held in favor of the insurance company in this case.
In short, determining whether or not you are “disabled” hinges more on what the terms of your plan are than on what your diagnosed problems are. And, in many cases, it takes a skilled lawyer to help you with a claim to assure you the best results.
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