Insurance companies administering ERISA long-term disability claims may be facing new rules. In 2012 the U.S. Department of Labor’s ERISA Advisory Council undertook a study on issues relating to managing disability claims in the ERISA administrative review context. The Advisory Council recommended that the USDOL review the current claims regulation and recommend specific updates and modifications.
After taking comments, the final rule was published on December 19, 2016, and is set to take effect January 1, 2018. One of the main aims of the final rule is to “alleviate the financial and emotional hardship suffered by many individuals when they are unable to work after becoming disabled and their claims are denied.”
The main “Claims Regulation” under which ERISA disability claims have been administered and adjudicated since 2002 – 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1 – will be revised and updated to include the following:
1. Conflicts of Interest are to be Avoided.
Claims and appeals are to be adjudicated in a manner designed to ensure the independence and impartiality of the persons involved in making the benefit determination. Decisions regarding hiring, compensation, termination, promotion, or other similar matters are not be based upon the likelihood that the individual will support the denial of benefits.
2. The Disclosure Requirements are Expanded.
Under the final rule, benefit denial notices must contain a complete discussion of why the plan denied the claim and the standards applied in reaching the decision. This includes the basis for disagreeing with the views of the claimant’s health care professionals, vocational professionals or with disability determinations made by the Social Security Administration.
Plans can no longer disagree with a treating health care professional “merely by stating that the plan or a reviewing physician disagrees with the treating physician….” The final rule requires that the adverse benefit determination include a discussion of the basis for disagreeing with the health care professional’s views.
The same standard also applies to a denial which disagrees with a Social Security Administration finding of disability. Disagreement with the determination must be accompanied by “more detailed justification….” The final rule also requires an administrator to notify a claimant of an alleged deficiency in the record and provide an opportunity to supplement the record, particularly if the administrator is not in possession of an applicable Social Security Administration ruling.
3. Timely Disclosure of New Evidence and Rationale Supporting a Denial Must Be Produced
Under the final rule, claimants must be given timely notice of their right to access their entire claim file, as well as other relevant documents, and be guaranteed the right to present evidence and testimony in support of their claim during the review process. The Department took the position that claimants
have a right to review and respond to new evidence or rationales developed by the plan during the pendency of the appeal and to fully and fairly present their case at the administrative appeal level, as opposed to merely having a right to review such information on request only after the claim has already been denied on appeal.
Any evidence or rationale provided must be turned over as soon as possible, and sufficiently in advance of the date on which the notice of adverse benefit determination on review is required to be provided, to allow the claimant a reasonable opportunity to respond to the new evidence. Rather than viewing this as a ‘new’ requirement, the DOL took the position that it simply hones the prior requirements under 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1 to clarify exactly what, and when, information should be provided to claimants.
4. Deemed Exhaustion of Claims and Appeals Processes
Under the final rule, plans cannot prohibit a claimant from seeking judicial review of a claim denial based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the plan if the plan failed to comply with the claims procedure requirements. A “minor error” is the only exception to this new provision, although the DOL noted that this standard is “stricter than a mere ‘substantial compliance’ requirement.”
5. Amending the Definition of “Adverse Benefit Determination”
Under the final rule, certain rescissions of coverage are to be treated as “adverse benefit determinations” triggering the plan’s appeals procedures. For plans providing disability benefits, a rescission of coverage that has a retroactive effect now constitutes an adverse benefit determination. Under the USDOL’s analysis, if a plan provides for the payment of disability benefits for a pre-determined, fixed period, the termination of benefits at the end of the specified period would not constitute an adverse benefit determination under the regulation, but rather a new claim.
6. The Applicable Statute of Limitations Must Be Disclosed
Under the final rule, the USDOL specified that it:
does not believe that a claims procedure would satisfy the statutory requirement if the plan included a contractual limitations period that expired before the review was concluded… A limitations period that expires before the conclusion of the plan’s internal appeals process on its face violates ERISA section 503’s requirement of a full and fair review process. A process that effectively requires the claimant to forego the right to judicial review and thereby insulates the administrator from impartial judicial review falls far short of the statutory fairness standard and undermines the claims administrator’s incentives to decide claims correctly.
The USDOL seems to suggest that any limitation time-period shorter than a year after the final claims decision does not allow a reasonable period after the conclusion of the appeal in which to bring a lawsuit and is accordingly unenforceable. Additionally, “in addition to such traditional remedies, plans that offer appeals or dispute resolution beyond what is contemplated in the claims procedure regulations must agree to toll the limitations provision during that time.”
 See Claims Procedure for Plans Providing Disability Benefits, 81 Fed. Reg. 92316 (December 19, 2016).
 Id. at 92317.
 Id. at 92321.
 Id. at 92322.
 Id. at 92324.
 Failure to comply constitutes a “minor error” if the violation was (1) de minimis, (2) non-prejudicial, (3) attributable to good cause or matters beyond the plan’s control, (4) in the context of an ongoing good-faith exchange of information, or (5) not reflective of a pattern or practice of non-compliance. Id. at 92327.
 Id. at 92330.
 Id. at 92331.