Long-Term Disability Coverage is Paramount for Physicians

How important is long-term disability insurance for physicians? Just ask a Maryland-based neurologist who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003 and soon was unable to maintain business as usual. For the sake of his privacy, we’ll call this physician Richard Mason, M.D. “As my private practice income diminished to nothing, disability insurance provided monthly supplementary income which kept my family financially afloat,” Mason explains. “We would have lost our house had it not been for the insurance.”

How important is long-term disability insurance for physicians? Just ask a Maryland-based neurologist who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003 and soon was unable to maintain business as usual. For the sake of his privacy, we’ll call this physician Richard Mason, MD.

“As my private practice income diminished to nothing, disability insurance provided monthly supplementary income which kept my family financially afloat,” Mason explains. “We would have lost our house had it not been for the insurance.”

A rapid progression

Mason recalls first purchasing an individual disability policy while in residency after hearing an insurance representative say that a person is more likely to become disabled than to die during their working career. The light bulb went on, and Mason realized there was a point between health and death called disability that could result in his not being able to work long-term.

Mason needed to use his policy when Parkinson’s set in. The disease advanced aggressively and included severe tremors, micrographia (small handwriting), slowed movements, painful muscle rigidity, significant fatigue, and extremely low tolerance of stress. Even with medication, it became very difficult to see patients, take histories, conduct physical exams, and create consultation documentation. Slowly, he began to cut back on his patient load, and thus his income.

“Eventually, I had to cease being a private practice physician, as the physical demands and stress of taking care of others was too much, as well as not economically viable anymore,” says Mason. “This was even more stressful as I have a wife and two children to support.”

Within 2 years of his original diagnosis, Mason reached a point of total disability and underwent deep brain simulation (DBS) surgery in 2005. The DBS implant helped reduce—but not eliminate—some of the symptoms, and it enabled Mason to return to work part-time. Because his disability policy had a ‘partial disability’ rider, he was able to work part-time as a neurologist, though in a way that was less tiring and less stressful. He is now looking for a desk-based job where he can still be productive without the physical demands of a medical practice.

The "group" approach

Mason was fortunate to have an individual disability insurance policy, but he explains that “the best scenario would be to have group and individual disability policies, covering ‘own occupation’ with a ‘partial disability’ rider, and indexed for inflation.”

Recent trends are making group disability coverage even more important. According to the Medical Group Management Association, physician incomes have been increasing. Pat Pfeifer, physician segment program manager with The Hartford, points out that “if you’re an orthopedic surgeon or cardiologist, you’re going to max out the coverage you have on your individual policy, so you’re going to want to cover that additional income,” and a group disability policy is a way to do so.

For example, The Hartford’s new long-term disability policy provides benefits of up to $15,000 a month and includes two new standard features to help protect doctors’ earnings against a progressive disability, such as arthritis or Parkinson’s, and from the loss of sight or a limb. The policy’s affordability, says Pfeifer, helps today’s physicians who are wrestling with higher costs for malpractice and health insurance while coping with reduced reimbursement for their services.

“Physicians nowadays are seeing the impact of a disability on their patient base,” says Pfeifer. “They understand when a patient shows up in their office with a broken leg that they’re not able to work, so they understand the impact of the disability. They understand the need to have financial protection, and that they might not have enough with their individual policies.”

Mason understands

Mason says he does not like being on disability, and tries to use it sparingly by working as much as he is able. Recently, he has been doing some consulting work for a non-profit Parkinson’s organization. But Mason also realizes that Parkinson’s—which is now causing him voice dysfunction—is progressive, and likely will eventually further compromise his ability to work. He offers some well-chosen words of advice for his physician colleagues.

“Remember, life is unpredictable,” says Mason. “If you incur a long-term disability and are unable to practice medicine in the manner you had been doing, you may need some form of income replacement. I am glad the disability policy is there for me when I do need it. The monthly premium is a small price to pay for peace of mind, at least financially.”

Ed Rabinowitz is a veteran healthcare reporter and writer. He welcomes comments at edwardr@ptd.net.