Coronavirus Insurance Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many types of insurance questions. Below is an FAQ on some insurance issues people may be dealing with during the pandemic. As always, it’s important to keep in mind that the specific facts and insurance policy language will vary from case to case. An FAQ can’t take the place of legal advice from consulting with an attorney directly. But hopefully this will help point you in the right direction.

Health Insurance

Typical health insurance covers COVID-19 treatment just the same as any other illness. Washington’s Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) exchange platform is allowing a special open enrollment period for qualified uninsured individuals to buy insurance on the state Exchange through April 8, 2020. This is an exception to the normal rule that you can only buy Exchange coverage during special periods.

There are also special rules for COVID-19 testing. The federal government designated COVID-19 testing as an essential health benefit, meaning that Medicaid and Medicare plans should cover testing. Washington’s Office of the Insurance Commissioner has ordered health insurers to cover COVID-19 testing without deductibles or cost-sharing. Also, insurers have to allow patients to refill necessary prescriptions regardless of the normal waiting periods.

Disability Insurance

Employees unable to work due to COVID-19 might have recourse under disability insurance policies.  Disability coverage should provide benefits for folks who can’t work because they are sick. But, as always, the fine print matters. Many policies have waiting periods or other detailed rules for paying benefits. The specific rules will also depend on how you obtained coverage. Most folks get disability insurance from their employer, and will have to navigate the special claims procedures under ERISA. For folks who bought their policies themselves, claims will be governed by Washington State law which is generally more policyholder-friendly.

Business Loss Insurance

Businesses who close or lose revenue because of the pandemic or the state-ordered lockdown might have claims for business interruption coverage. This coverage is often provided by standard commercial insurance policies. These claims depend heavily on the specific policy language and facts. For example, some policies require actual physical damage to property before paying business interruption benefits. Other policies might require the business be closed by the authorities. It is also important to be able to document the specific losses incurred under business interruption coverage.

Know Your Rights

Anyone who thinks they have insurance coverage related to COVID-19 should be on top of their rights. In disasters like this pandemic, insurers often cut corners or underpay claims. Washington State insurance policyholders have important rights, including the right to a full, fair, and prompt investigation of their claim at the insurer’s expense. Insurers also have a duty to fully disclose all the potential coverage that you might have.

Finally, here are some resources for non-insurance issues relating to the pandemic:





Can your disability insurer offset your benefits because you are receiving other income?

Let’s say you become ill and can’t work anymore. Fortunately, you have disability insurance coverage through your employer. You apply and get awarded benefits. The policy says your benefits are two thirds of your salary. But the insurance company is paying you less. They say that they can subtract from your benefits any money you are collecting from Social Security Disability.

Can they do that? Like many insurance questions, it depends on the insurance policy fine print.

Most disability insurance policies provide an offset for so-called “other income” or “deducible income” you receive because of your disability. For instance, if your monthly disability insurance benefit would normally be $1,000, and you have $300 in deductible income, the disability insurance benefit is reduced to $700. What counts as deductible income that counts against your benefits depends on the wording of the insurance policy.

Deductible income often includes:

  • Social security disability payments;
  • Workers’ compensation payments;
  • Payments from other insurance policies; or
  • Payments from the person who inflicted the injuries that made you disabled (if a third party is responsible for your disability).

Moreover, disability insurance policies often require you to apply for potential sources of deductible income. For instance, your disability policy may require you to apply for Social Security Disability benefits.

The key is that the insurance company can’t deduct income that isn’t specifically listed in the policy. If you are receiving benefits under a disability insurance policy and the insurer tries to reduce your benefit because you are receiving other disability income, consult a lawyer to review the policy and make sure you know your rights.

How Do I Know Whether To Make A Disability Insurance Claim?

Many people understand that they have disability insurance coverage, but aren’t sure whether, when, or how to make a claim.  This confusion often results in people delaying in submitting a claim, which can potentially jeopardize their right to coverage.  Below is a guide to some of the issues you might consider in determining whether to make a disability insurance claim.

First, remember that the specific insurance policy language will determine whether you have a claim for disability benefits.  Always be sure to double check the actual insurance policy language – or have a lawyer do so for you – before making any decisions.  Also be mindful that the insurance policy may be comprised of many separate documents.  For instance, there may be an insurance policy contract, declarations pages, riders, amendments, and endorsements, all contained in what might appear to be separate documents.  And if your disability coverage is subject to ERISA, other employee benefit plan documents such as a Summary Plan Description may also affect your rights.

In particular, you will want to be familiar with how the policy defines “disability.”  Most disability insurance policies define “disability” to mean, basically, you can’t work because you are ill or injured.  But the devil is often in the details.  For example, does the policy require you to be unable to do your current job, or any job within your skillset, or any job at all?  Is a software engineer with cognitive impairment from a brain injury disabled if they can still flip burgers? Slight differences in the definition of “disability” can be critical.

Second, have a clear understanding of the medical basis for your disability – i.e., the injuries, illnesses, or other conditions that affect your life and prevent you from working.  You don’t need to be a doctor to make a disability claim, but having a clear picture of the diagnoses and limitations relevant to your disability will help you submit your claim clearly.  Absent clarity, some unscrupulous insurance adjuster may try to take advantage of the confusion to mischaracterize your claim as falling within one of the policy’s exclusions.

Third, be mindful of whether you have discussed with your employer any potential accommodations that could help you perform your job despite your disability.  Most of the time, employers are legally obligated to make minor changes to your job to enable you to continue working despite your disability.  If you can keep working with a reasonable accommodation, you may not be entitled to disability insurance benefits – and may not need them in the first place!

Fourth, be mindful of any applicable time limits to make a claim.  Be sure you are submitting your claim to the right people, using the right documentation, and meeting the right deadlines.  Don’t put yourself in a position of losing out on coverage through technicalities.

These are just a few of the many things you may want to consider when deciding whether to claim disability insurance benefits.  Please keep in mind that many other issues can come into play – and the best way to protect your legal rights is to talk to a lawyer!

Four Common Disability Insurance Provisions and Why They Matter

As with most insurance cases, disputes over disability insurance coverage or benefits frequently turn on the specific insurance policy language at issue.  Insurance policy fine print can often be read in ways that are counterintuitive.  Below are four common policy provisions that are often key to the outcome of disability insurance disputes.

1.     The Definition of “Disabled”

Disability insurance policies can define “disabled” in different ways.  Some policies define disability in terms of the insured’s employment qualifications.  Such a policy might provide: “you are unable to perform the duties of any gainful occupation for which you are reasonably fitted by education, training or experience.”  Other policies define disability in terms of the insured’s existing occupation, defining disability as: “you are unable to perform the material and substantial duties of your regular occupation, or you have a 20% or more loss in your monthly earnings.”  Further, some insurance policies change the definition of disability once the insured has been disabled for a certain time period, typically tightening the standard.

For insureds, the definition of disability is the key to claiming benefits.  Many disability insurance disputes focus on whether the insured meets the definition of disability.  That’s key because insurers sometimes deny claims under the wrong standard of disability.  Denying claims under an erroneous standard could result in denying benefits where the insured is otherwise entitled to them.

The definition of disability also establishes the specific medical evidence needed to establish the insured is disabled.  That’s key because doctors typically do not write medical records with the insurer’s definition of disability in mind; they focus on the medical information relevant to the patient’s diagnosis treatment.  Accordingly, insurers often claim the insured’s medical records don’t prove the insured is disabled because the doctor’s notes don’t precisely match up with the definition in the policy.

2.     Mental Health Limits

Many disability policies contain special provisions restricting coverage where the insured’s disability relates to their mental health.  Although the federal Mental Health Parity Act generally prohibits health insurers from disfavoring mental health coverage, disability insurers are still often free to do so.

An example of a common mental health limitation in a disability policy: “Disabilities which are due in whole or part to mental illness have a limited pay period during your lifetime.  The limited pay period for mental illness is 24 months during your lifetime.”

Mental health limitations can be critical to disability insurance disputes.  The insured may have both physical and mental health symptoms.  Sometimes, the physical ailments cause the mental health symptoms directly, for example, in the case of a traumatic brain injury which manifests with difficulty concentrating or focusing.  Or, the mental health symptoms may be ancillary to the physical injury; for instance, people suffering a physical disability often seek mental health treatment after becoming depressed and anxious about their inability to work, engage in hobbies or socialize because of their physical disability.  Sometimes the mental and physical symptoms may be completely unrelated, for instance, when a person who has been treated for anxiety for many years sustains a physical disability following an injury.

In these circumstances, insurers often conflate the physical and mental health symptoms to justify limiting benefits under the mental health limitation.  Insurers may ignore the physical ailments that prevent the insured from working and focus on ancillary mental health symptoms that were well-managed prior to the onset of physical symptoms.  Or, the insurer may incorrectly determine that any physical limitations are caused solely by mental health conditions, for instance, by characterizing migraine headaches as a symptom of anxiety.

To avoid this, it’s critical to present the insurer with medical records and statements from treating providers that clearly differentiate mental health conditions from physical ailments, and indicate whether the physical ailments alone render the insured disabled.

3.     “Objective” Evidence Requirements

Similar to mental health, many disability insurance policies limit coverage for so-called “self-reported symptoms,” defined as symptoms that cannot be proven through “objective” testing.

Many disabling conditions are, by their nature, not readily provable through “objective” testing.  Chronic migraines, fibromyalgia, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are common examples.  These conditions sometimes result in disabling symptoms, but are difficult to objectively measured through things like MRIs or X-Rays.  Consequently, many insureds have coverage denied for conditions that render them disabled but cannot be identified on objective tests.

Overcoming “objective” evidence requirements often entails establishing that the condition is one that is known in the medical community to resist proof by objective means.  Many courts have recognized the medical consensus that conditions like fibromyalgia do not show up on MRIs, and, consequently, do not allow insurers to deny such conditions for lack of “objective” testing that, by definition, cannot exist.

4.     ERISA

Disability policies issued through an employer are typically subject to a federal law called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  If ERISA applies, it imposes important deadlines and procedural rules insureds must follow in order to contest a disability insurance denial.  For instance, insureds must appeal a denied claim within specific time periods (usually measured in days).  Moreover, the appeal must include all information the insured relies on in claiming benefits; information absent from the appeal often cannot be considered in a lawsuit disputing the denial.

The Fine Print Matters In Insurance Coverage Disputes

Many insurance disputes revolve around the fine print of the policy.  Unfortunately, the policy’s specific language may define important terms differently from what the insured understood or was led to believe.  This was the case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Fiorentini v. Paul Revere Life Insurance Company.

In Fiorentini, the plaintiff became disabled during aggressive cancer treatment.  The insurer affirmed coverage and paid disability benefits while the plaintiff remained unable to work.  But a dispute arose after the plaintiff went back to work.  The insurer argued the plaintiff was no longer disabled since he had returned to work, but the plaintiff argued he remained disabled because, despite being back at work, he still could not perform all of his job duties.  Specifically, the plaintiff argued that while he could perform most job duties, aftereffects of his cancer treatment left him unable to meet face-to-face with potential clients.

The plaintiff relied on the policy’s definition of “total disability” which provided the plaintiff was disabled if he was “unable to perform the important duties” of his job.  The plaintiff argued that meeting in person with potential client was an important duty.  Hence, the plaintiff claimed that being unable to meet in person with potential clients rendered him disabled even admitting he could do all the other functions of his job.

The court read the policy differently.  The court interpreted the definition of disability to cover only the “inability” to do important job duties, not merely a “diminished” ability to perform.  The court concluded that even assuming the plaintiff’s ability to meet face-to-face with potential clients was diminished by the aftereffects of his cancer treatment, the client was not totally unable to perform his job duties.  Since the court decided that meeting in person with new clients was not essential to the plaintiff’s job, being unable to meet with new clients only diminished the plaintiff’s ability to perform his duties – it did not render the plaintiff unable to perform his duties.

In short, the court parsed the policy fine print in a way that undercut the insured’s expectations about what would be covered.  The Fiorentini decision illustrates the importance that policyholders carefully scrutinize policy language to learn their rights.