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