C'mon, NY, Just Do It Already

 We finally have the behemoth of the New York State Department of Insurance moving and, in the right direction.

But, don’t start the celebration too early. Once before, we had the New York Department ‘gung ho’ to “level the playing field” only to have it fall asleep while trying to come up with an actual regulation to protect disabled claimants against the hated ‘discretionary clause’ which unfairly sinks so many disability claimants.

The New York Department has proposed a new regulation No. 184 to try to level the playing field between ERISA disability income claimants and their insurance companies. Presently insurance companies decide whether ERISA disability income claims are compensable, then have to pay the claims if they are. So, take a guess at which way the insurers lean in deciding a claim.

In 2005, the New Jersey Law Journal published an op-ed piece by this writer that called on the State of New Jersey to do something about the discretionary clause in policies written in that state. That piece ultimately resulted in regulations NJAC 11:4-58-1-4 that were approved and became the law of New Jersey on January 1, 2008. From that point on, New Jersey citizens received the evenhanded ERISA claim protection they deserved.

About 20 of the 50 states have already banned the use of the discretionary clause as of this date.

In 2006, the New York Department of Insurance also decried the unfairness of the discretionary clause in ERISA disability income insurance policies (Circular Letter 8) and vowed to do something about it. The New York Department, although requesting comments and proposing a regulation (Circular Letter 14), unexpectedly withdrew the proposal without comment in 2006. From that time on, there hasn’t been a peep from the Department about such a regulation until this latest proposal.

Not that there were not calls during this period for a discretionary ban to be enacted. We take great pride in being somewhat of a catalyst in this discretionary clause regulation battle in both states. See my 2009 op-ed in the New York Law Journal.

There was no satisfactory response from the Insurance Department until the proposed latest regulation which, if approved, will become law in the state. Should it become law, no longer will New York residents be at the mercy of insurance company’s holding all of the cards when deciding whether or not to pay a disability income claim.

Without an approved regulation, we had always felt no court could legally recognize the state’s declared antipathy to the discretionary clause, no matter how vehemently the clause was denounced.

And, wouldn’t you know, it happened in one of our cases, Barnes v. American International, 681 F. Supp. 2d (S.D.N.Y. 2010). See excerpt. Fortunately, there were other factors in the case which overcame the disadvantages of the discretionary clause and our client prevailed and received her benefits.

However, if the facts weren’t overwhelmingly in our client’s favor in that case, another New Yorker would have been deprived of equal rights because of the discretionary clause..

We applaud the New York State Department of Insurance for finally getting around to proposing a pertinent regulation which will protect its citizens and do away with the advantage ERISA law gives disability income insurers.

But, based upon recent history, we are going to hold our breath until New York actually formally approves the regulation for its citizens and makes it law.

For too long New York State has been just “talking the talk” on banning the discretionary clause.  It’s high time for New York State to “walk the walk”.

 

 


 

You're Insured - Maybe

 

A recent article outlining the effect of insurance regulators trying to do away with the “discretionary clause” in ERISA disability income insurance policies raised an interesting and basic issue concerning life in these United States.

Why do we keep kidding ourselves about what we do?

The “discretionary” issue here concerns whether plan administrators should have the discretion to determine whether a claim is covered by an ERISA policy when the insurance company is both the insurer which will pay the claim and the administrator of the ERISA plan. It doesn’t take a genius to know that this “discretionary” situation creates a powerful incentive for the administrator to favor the insurance company in making that decision.

Defenders of this “discretionary” system say this procedure keeps costs manageable and that to do otherwise would raise the cost of insurance because with the discretionary clause the insurer will pay fewer claims. They are correct. But, what does unfair favoritism have to do with protecting the sick or disabled?

Is it better to call a thing a nice sounding name, but not give the nice-sounding protection the name implies? Have we become so used to Madison Avenue that we are willing to play the ad game with the terms of our insurance policies?

When you buy an insurance policy, you expect to be fully protected against risks you bought the policy for. Why should the insurer insurer have the advantage of unfairly denying your claim and then having the courts constrained to defer to that unfair denial, simply because such a system leads to smaller disability payouts and, hence, lower premiums. If the insurance doesn’t cover what it is supposed to cover, who cares how low the premiums are?

What good is a policy that doesn’t do what it s supposed to do? And, how far do we carry this sham?

Policies are supposed to be statistically underwritten so that the insurance company knows the risk and sets its price accordingly. If the price is high, so be it. Reduce some of the benefits so that the premium meets the cost. Don’t use an artificial stricture on paying benefits to deprive deserving claimants what is due them.

During the last decade, we have all had the experience of living a lie: Banks urging people with bad credit to take their credit cards and use them recklessly; calling “liar’s loans” home mortgages; thinking housing prices would go up and up and up forever; Wall Street becoming a crap-shooting gambler, shuffling paper back and forth and making billions in bonuses on the paper shuffle; rating companies being fooled (or worse, just okaying any deal for the fee money); and on and on and on.

We are suffering for living the lie because it felt so good. Now, let’s start getting real. If insurance requires a certain premium, require that it be paid. Shortcuts created by fudging what is actually going on leads to injustice and worse.

If an ERISA policy calls for “discretion” on the part of an administrator who works for an insurer, and the decision is required to get deference in the courts, let’s call it what it is:

A maybe disability income policy

 

ERISA Is Great, But


If you have an ERISA income disability policy (a group LTD insurance policy most often purchased through an employer), you may think you have the same coverage and benefits as a privately purchased disability policy – but, you would be flat out wrong.

First off, in most states you would have to deal with the ERISA “discretionary clause” which puts a policyholder behind the 8-ball before a claim is even filed. Some 16 states have prohibited the clause in new policy language, but most states haven’t.

This clause allows the insurance company, which will pay the claim, to initially determine if the claim is covered by the disability policy. If the insurer says “no”, then the claimant has to climb out of a deep legal hole to prevail no matter what the actual facts of the claim.

A private policy has no “discretionary clause” to put the claimant on the defensive right from the start. If a private insurer denies a disability claim, the policyholder has to prove the disability is covered by a straightforward preponderance of the evidence and does not have to prove that the insurer’s denial of a claim was “arbitrary and capricious” a tough standard of proof in any court.

Other advantages of private over ERISA polices are:

* The way covered earnings are calculated. ERISA covers base salaries while private policies usually cover base plus incentive compensation.
* Taxation. ERISA benefits are taxed to the extent of employer contribution. Private benefits, usually paid with after-tax dollars are non-taxable.
* No benefits offsets. ERISA benefits are frequently subject to offsets from other group insurance benefits, SSDI, and Workers Comp. Private policies usually hve no benefits offsets.
* Portability. Private disability income policies are transferrable if employment changes. ERISA policies are generally not transferrable.
* “Own Occupation”. Private policies have “own occupation” clauses which are more tailored to the policyholder’s occupational status at time of policy purchase. ERISA policies usually have a 2-year “own occupation” coverage and then switch to an “any occupation” disability definition.
* Contract Changes. Private coverage usually prohibits rate increases until age 65 while ERISA rates can increase during the life of the policy.
* Cost of living. COLA increases are much more common in private coverage while it is rare in ERISA policies.
* Mental and nervous disorders. ERISA policies often limit benefit coverage to 2 years. With a private policy, even an unlimited benefit coverage for these types of ailments may be purchased.
* Legal rights. Private policy claims permit jury trials, while ERISA claims do not. In addition, private disability insurance allows full discovery and punitive damages in a proper case while ERISA coverage permits very limited discovery and no punitive damages.

If you are covered only by an ERISA policy and believe you would like to have some of the benefits of a private disability income policy, there is nothing stopping you from buying additional cover age to supplement what you have under ERISA.

If so, don’t delay. Buy the additional coverage BEFORE something untoward happens. Otherwise you’ll cry over spilt milk and lost benefit dollars.

 

Give Us A Break

We wonder how the naysayers in Congress would act if they lost their health insurance as so many have in this recession? Would the members be so sanguine when it comes to cost and coverage and finally bringing health car costs and the insurance companies to account?

It’s easy to say no when you have a health insurance policy which covers you and your family for everything and anything and doesn’t cost you one thin dime. When you are up on a mountain, the flood doesn’t bother you nearly as much as those who live by the river.

Just to emphasize how this works, take ERISA. Although just about every other group health policy in the nation is covered by ERISA, Congress exempted Federal (this includes Congress) and State employees from ERISA provisions.

So, those who have the good fortune to be employed by the government, do not have the burden of dealing with the discretionary clause, the one which gives the group plan administrator, usually the insurance company which pays the claim, the first right to decide if a claim is valid.

Talk about a stacked deck!

Why should government employees be exempt from this provision which has plagued the rest of the ERISA disability population for decades? If as the Constitution says, we are all created equal under the law, why aren’t we insured “equal” under the law?

Come on, Congress. You have a great health plan that we, the taxpayer, pays for.

What about the rest of us?
 

States! Help Your ERISA Claimants

There’s an ERISA problem that should have been eliminated years ago, but still persists to the detriment of disability claimants in too many of our states – the discretionary clause – which gives insurance companies a big leg up when contesting disability claims.

This gives the insurer, who is usually the administrator of an ERISA plan, the discretion to decide if a claim is covered by the very ERISA policy the insurer would have to pay on if the claim were approved. This power is further compounded by the decision in Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 US 101 (1989), in which the court ruled that a finding by such an administrator could only be overturned by a court finding that such a decision was “arbitrary and capricious," a legal phrase meaning that the court could not find a single reasonable basis upon which the decision could be based.

Needless to say, when an administrator rules against a claimant, this ruling puts a mountain in the way of the claimant on appeal. There are a legion of cases where a Federal judge has found that the decision of the administrator was all wet, but the court felt constrained to rule that the administrator’s ruling could not be changed because of Firestone.  In other words, even though the judge would have clearly found the administrator's decision incorrect, the court had to uphold the decision because it was not found to be “arbitrary and capricious”.

Adding to the problem is the Federal statute’s command that ERISA  preempts states' powers so that Federal law controls in ERISA cases. States cannot change ERISA law. But, there is an exception to this in the ERISA statute – states have the final say in the language of insurance policies issued in their state.

So, in 2004, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an organization of the state insurance commissioners of all 50 states, approved a model rule, proposing adoption by all state insurance commissioners, that prohibited discretionary clauses from the language of any policy issued in a state.

One would think that state insurance commissions or legislators would hop on this prohibition bandwagon quickly, but this has not been the case. As of this date, 16 states have prohibited the discretionary clause in ERISA policies while 34 states have left their citizens at the mercy of the discretionary clause when at a low point in their lives - when making a claim for disability income and treatment.

At the present time, the issue of banning the discretionary clause is before the legislature in Wyoming. Although the New York State Insurance Commission thoroughly denounced the discretionary clause as against public policy in 2006, it has yet to approve a rule giving that denunciation the force of law and leaving its citizens on a playing field heavily tilted against them when forced to make an ERISA disability claim.

Lawyers and ERISA policyholders in states where the legislature or the insurance commission has not yet righted this wrong should seriously consider writing their insurance officials to protect their citizens from this injustice.

For a list of states without discretion-banning law on their books and the addresses and phone numbers of the people to call ask for a change, click here.