“Independent” medical exams and “reasonable” grounds for denying your claim

As we’ve seen when an insurance company has managed to grant itself “discretion” it gets the benefit of the most absurd judicial deference known to the law. The courts make no bones about it: a decision to deny benefits, even if the court agrees it is wrong, will nonetheless be upheld so long as the court concludes it was “reasonable” (not reasonable, “reasonable”).

So what does it take for a wrong decision to be “reasonable”? One way is for the insurance company to say hey, it wasn’t our decision, we hired an independent doctor to review all the files and we just abided by this fine fellow’s impartial and fair opinion. And the judge says, well, they did have someone with “M.D.” after his name say the claim was bogus, and who am I, a mere federal district court judge, to disagree with such a learned and considered opinion? (and the champagne and caviar doesn’t affect my decision at all!).

Of course, as in all things ERISA, the books are cooked here. These so-called “independent” medical examiners are very, very frequently beholden to the insurance companies who hire them and pay the freight. These doctors are very handsomely contemplated for their time, and that gravy train stops abruptly if the insurance company sees they are issuing too many opinions which don’t allow the insurer to deny a claim. So to all too many of these “independent” doctors, no one is ever disabled, and no medical treatment ever qualifies as “medically necessary.”

My colleague Michael Quiat, on his excellent disability law blawg, addressed this issue recently. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

To construct the façade of “impartiality”, insurance companies hire doctor “agencies” which hire physicians to do what are facetiously called Independent Medical Examinations, purportedly because the insurance company wants to catch malingerers. These doctor agencies scout out MDs, many of whom do not practice medicine as a vocation, but stick strictly to IME exams. These exams provide most, if not all of their income.

These physicians are paid to be highly skeptical of disability claim and claimants. Most of their exams are based on the written reports of claimants’ doctors, but yet they are supposedly able to determine that a claimant is not in pain or restricted in movement or otherwise afflicted, even though they never see the claimant!

Mike’s post includes a link to a recent article in the Los Angeles Daily Journal about this; it is worth your time to take a look at that too.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, echoed the same concerns:

As compared to consultants retained by a plan, it may be true that treating physicians, as a rule, have a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual. Nor do we question the Court of Appeals’ concern that physicians repeatedly retained by benefits plans may have an “incentive to make a finding of `not disabled’ in order to save their employers money and to preserve their own consulting arrangements.”

Not that that ended up meaning anything; the court in Nord decided that the opinions of treating physicians deserved no particular consideration, and it was perfectly OK for an insurance company to credit the views of its paid whores doctors over the views of the claimant’s treating physicians.

So that’s one way judges uphold decisions they know to be wrong, because the decisions are reasonable “reasonable.”