An Unexpected Diagnosis and Disability Insurance
I’d like to introduce Tammy Blizzard, DVM. Her life took an unexpected turn when she was diagnosed with a disability that has not allowed her to currently work as a veterinarian. She happened to have disability insurance at the time of diagnosis, and as a result of her own experience, she advocates for others to seriously consider disability insurance if they are not currently covered.
Her story is unique, and this story is not meant to be a how-to guide for purchasing a disability insurance policy. What I hope this story shows is that as much as we like to think we’re invincible, life can throw us curveballs. It’s up to us as individuals to protect ourselves and our loved ones from major financial setbacks, and having an appropriate disability insurance policy is one of the ways we can do this.
1. Please introduce yourself!
I grew up in Illinois, but while in school my parents moved to Florida. I no longer had attachments to the state and interviewed in several locations in the eastern states. I chose a mixed animal practice in eastern North Carolina, where I practiced for 7 years. I married and had two children, and we realized we were restless and it was time to move.
In 2007, we moved to central Pennsylvania. For the first time in my life, I felt at home! I loved the small mountains, the seasons with the snow, the invigorating springs! And I started running, then switched trail running to get in shape and deal with stress, and to enjoy the beautiful region I had moved to.
2. Please describe the events that led to your current condition.
BACKGROUND: October 1, 2012 I euthanized my 3 yo trail running buddy because of lymphosarcoma that failed to respond to chemotherapy. Her LSA had spread to her spinal cord and the last week of her life I carried her til the end. She was the first pet of my own I had to euthanize. Two days later I went on a run to get some emotion out, and walked across some large, flat wet rocks and fell. Hard. Hard enough for everything to go in slow motion and wonder what was going to happen to me, alone in the woods. I was okay, but three weeks later my neck still hurt and I realized I had whiplash – on the left side – from falling. I truly feel this was the incident that started the ball rolling on my disability.
In April of 2014, I had a really bad bout of a pinched nerve on my left side. I couldn’t turn my head, at all. I was in tears and actually took NSAIDs, which was unusual for me. It waxed and waned and in a month, and I asked my PCP for muscle relaxants. They helped, but it continued. As a typical veterinarian ignoring health issues, I still got up for my early morning runs, cradling my left arm until the pain subsided.
In June, I started a new job – I was managing a clinic nearly an hour away. I loved it! What a great match. But the issues with my neck continued. I went to a chiropractor as I was raised to do, and an adjustment sent shooting nerve pains down my arms. I stopped going to him and started PT in August which didn’t help. I started getting shocks that were what I now know as L’Hermitte’s sign, and she casually said: “sounds like you have a bulging disc.” Unfortunately, either she didn’t relay this to my PCP or he didn’t read it in a report.
Despite being in pain, I worked my tail off while thoroughly enjoying the new job.
Then my boss called and offered me to manage another clinic in addition to the first, minutes from my house. Behind the scenes managing would start soon, clinic work would start as soon as my non-compete was over in May. I couldn’t believe it, this was amazing! A promotion with an awesome raise to match in a job I adored! It seemed too good to be true and wondered when the other shoe would drop.
My colleague had a baby early October, and we couldn’t find a relief vet. I worked incredibly hard and was proud of my new staff and myself for how we were doing.
But then walking up the stairs, my legs felt funny.
And why was I SO tired?
Reaching for the tray on the top shelf, I almost dropped it.
Why didn’t I have the strength to pull the porcupine quills?
Why was I starting to stumble?
I can’t even begin to describe the errors in human medicine between the chiropractor, the PT, and the PCP. Long story short, I had a brain/cervical MRI on December 2nd, 2014. My PCP called me in a panic the next day, telling me to leave work and go to the hospital an hour away for neurosurgery, my spinal cord was being crushed at C3-6, worse on the left. I laid in the hospital waiting for my surgery 2 days later when my neighbor pointed out the surgeon wasn’t even boarded yet….left that hospital, went to the best guy in the area with surgery on Monday the 8th. I had an ACDF of C3-6 with a corpectomy of C5.
I asked the surgeon how long would I be out of work, “six weeks”. WHAT? He replied, “well, probably 4 for someone like you, but ask for 6 in case you need it”. And eight weeks later I went back to work on Feb 1st.
My plan was to go to full time by March 15th, but that date became my first attempt at getting a fourth half day in. It didn’t work. My boss was amazing and said permanent part-time was fine. Unfortunately, my body kept declining, and I gave notice for my last day on 7/7/15. My surgeon originally said take 3-6 months, which my boss allowed me to use FMLA then would allow me back til the 6 mos. At 2 months into my leave I was worse, and my surgeon said at least a year. I have not returned to work since.
I now have had multiple other surgeries and other diagnoses that have impacted my life.
Work would be absolutely impossible now. I am proud of the days I can make a meal for my family.
My primary diagnosis is cervical myelopathy with resulting spasticity.
3. Did you have disability insurance prior to the diagnosis?
I have AVMA –LIFE insurance that I purchased on my own at the end of vet school, and for much of my career paid for myself. I didn’t realize that paying for it myself was so beneficial, that when your employer pays for it it comes out of your paycheck before taxes. Because of this, the government taxes your benefits if you ever collect. Since I paid for it myself from my paycheck, taxes are not taken out of the benefits since they were paid previously. This is a large difference in the bottom line on that monthly benefit check.
4. How did you choose a policy? Did you know what to look for in a policy?
AVMA-LIFE had a presentation our senior year of vet school, it’s the only reason I signed up. I had no idea what to look for in a policy, and basically did what they recommended. I don’t believe they tried to sell me more than I needed.
5. Describe your benefits. Do you consider the benefits adequate for your particular situation?
I have long term disability (LTD) with a 30 day waiting period. I opted not to take short term disability, and I don’t remember why – it makes sense that having a short waiting period for LTD covers STD as well. They did cover my post-operative leave, paying for one of the two months I was out of work. I had a future purchase option, which allowed me to increase my benefits based on my income in the future without an examination (meaning, if I had health issues I could not be denied an increase as long as my income was appropriate). I almost canceled this as well.
Another benefit I have is “Own Occupation Plus” which means that I can collect benefits if I am unable to be a veterinarian because of my disability, if that new occupation makes a percentage less than my old salary.
They do recommend having coverage that is 60% of your paycheck, and my coverage is not that. I had not paid any attention to my coverage and never considered increasing it. Gratefully it is enough to make ends meet with a low frills lifestyle.
A representative happened to cold call me in May 2015 because I was an “orphan client” and hadn’t updated my policy since graduation, 16 years previous. This was at the time when I was trying to work after my first surgery, and I knew I wouldn’t last much longer. She called at the perfect time to get the $1K increase a month, just in time for me to leave work permanently. It literally was approved within days of giving my notice for leave.
Since leaving work and collecting benefits, I learned a few key things about LTD that are really important. Maybe they taught it back at the presentation and I don’t remember. The benefits of AVMA-LIFE’s policies are as follows:
** If you are on full benefits, they will pay your semi-annual charges completely. My LTD, accidental death and dismemberment, life insurance, etc. are all paid. This is a huge savings a year. I almost lowered my life insurance before I knew this.
**If you are disabled, you can apply to AVMA for a membership fee waiver. The concern was having to stay a member of AVMA to still receive benefits, and the fee is a bit steep when not working.
**a BIG benefit that many don’t realize is that AVMA-LIFE is one of the few companies that does NOT require you to apply for SSDI once disabled for a year. As well, if you do get approved for SSDI, it does not subtract from your LTD income.
(Editor’s note: SSDI is the acronym for Social Security Disability Insurance. It is a benefit that is meant to provide additional income to those that have a disability.)
Many companies make you apply, and then 1) collect a portion of back pay to basically be reimbursed for what they paid you. 2) Deduct the SSDI earnings from their benefits. Example: If your LTD benefits are $3,000/month, and your SSDI benefits are $2000/mo, you will only collect $1000 from some companies. AVMA-LIFE will let you collect both for a total of $5000/mo. I had no idea of this difference years ago, but it obviously has a large impact on income.
(Editor’s note: An insurance agent that sells disability insurance would be able to provide the most up-to-date policy and benefits information. If you are looking for a policy, make sure you understand all of the terms and benefits.)
6. Do you feel that vets are adequately educated about the importance of disability insurance?
No, unless they’re already impacted by physical conditions it’s probably not much of a consideration. We’re (mostly!) young, ambitious, ready to be done with school and take on the world! Who would even consider that the future holds a life changing illness that would stop them from working, even if only temporarily? And with having tight budgets and debt, who has the money to pay for insurance? Those are the people that will need it desperately if something happens. I see post after post of vets saying they wished they had gotten coverage, and now it’s too late because of preexisting conditions that either aren’t covered, or won’t be covered at all. Many vets are having to search for coverage, this includes physical and mental health conditions.
7. Does it make sense for all vets to have disability insurance? Why or why not?
Absolutely. The only people that may not consider it are those that have a nest egg and are okay spending it if needed. Most vets have financial burdens may it be school loans, mortgages, business loans, other loans, children expenses, etc. For most of us, if our paycheck disappears we would not be able to make ends meet. If I had not had LTD, I believe we would have lost our home and possibly moved back to the family homestead. If that representative had not called me out of the blue in May 2015, I’d be getting $1,000 less a month and our budget would’ve been much tighter.
8. Please provide any resources that you recommend for those that are wishing to learn more about disability insurance for veterinarians.
Avmalife.org is the website I can recommend, having dealt with them.
9. Feel free to add any additional thoughts!
I tout AVMA-LIFE, but it’s the company I have experience with and have had no trouble with during my chronic issues. Just the opposite – they’ve been very accommodating and flexible based on my condition. I’m sure there are other companies that compare, but hopefully this will give tips on what to look for in a policy. If you have to find one, search carefully. I have read many horror stories on companies fighting coverage, spying on members collecting benefits, etc.
In Dr. Blizzard’s case, the combination of bad luck (a fall that likely led to her current disability) combined with good luck (signing up for a disability policy in vet school and not canceling it) resulted in a situation where her financial life was negatively impacted, but the degree of the impact was minimal thanks to insurance. As she stated, they could have very well lost their home and suffered other financial setbacks had she not been covered by insurance.
Does everyone need disability insurance? As Dr. Blizzard stated, if you already have an adequate nest egg, then disability insurance is not a must-have. However, if you know that you will be financially stressed if you cannot work for a prolonged period of time (which is most of us), then disability insurance is a viable way to protect your income.
In the future, I hope to have a helpful list of resources regarding insurance for those that are interested in learning more. In the meantime, do your due diligence as you do your research. In addition to the AVMA, you may want to reach out to an independent broker that is familiar with serving veterinarians. Hopefully, they will be able to give you several quotes and have enough expertise to assist you in choosing the best policy for your unique situation.
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Dr. Blizzard, and I wish you all the best in the future. It is an important reminder that there are resources available to those that want to ensure financial security for themselves and their loved ones.
If anyone has any questions, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. If you would like to add to this conversation, comment below!
A few things to keep in mind:
1) The policy mentioned does not have a true “Own-Occupation” definition of total disability. It contains a “Modified” Own-Occupation” or “Loss of Earnings” definition which may reduce monthly benefits if an insured chooses to work and earn income. A policy with a true “Own-Occupation” definition of Total Disability makes it possible for you to continue working and earn unlimited income, so long as your disability renders you unable to perform the “material and substantial” duties of your occupation.
Group/Association plans also may have other limitations associated with them. For this reason, Veterinarians and other professionals should make sure to do their homework when purchasing coverage.
2) Disability income insurance can be purchased personally by the insured or through an employer. As a general rule, when an individual purchases coverage for his or her own benefit, premiums are not deductible for federal income tax purposes (IRC § 213, 262 § 265). However, as a result, this means that benefits will be received income tax-free (IRC § 104 (a)(3)).
The situation becomes a bit more complex when coverage is purchased through an employer, depending primarily on the form of the business and ownership status of the insured. For example, if a Sole Proprietor purchased a policy to replace his or her own income, it would not matter whether the premium was paid from the personal or the business account. The premium is non-deductible, and benefits are received tax-free.
A Partnership or S Corporation may deduct premiums for disability income coverage paid on behalf of a partner or 2% plus shareholder/employee. This is allowed under current IRS rules (Revenue Ruling 91-26), provided these payments qualify as “guaranteed payments” and consideration for services rendered. However, the partner or shareholder must include such premiums as part of their taxable income. As a result, benefits paid under the policy are received free of income tax.
In a C Corporation, owners (shareholders) who work in the business are also considered to be employees. Therefore, the corporation can deduct premiums paid but the premiums will be considered a compensation bonus and thus, taxable to the shareholder. Again, as a result, benefits paid under the policy will be received free of income tax.
As a result of the above, a good rule of thumb is that premiums paid for an individual disability insurance policy where the physician is both the insured and policyowner, they cannot deduct the premiums paid for a personal disability insurance policy.
Thank you for your input. Disability insurance has many moving parts, and for the policyholder, they really need to rely on a good insurance broker to walk them through all of the available policies and help them decide which one suits their personal situation. I agree that anyone purchasing disability insurance needs to do their homework and clearly understand the language and benefits that are offered via different policies. The definition of true own-occupation versus modified own occupation must be fully discussed, as well as the difference between group policies through your employer versus individual policies. I know that it’s not a subject that people like to think about, but for anyone that relies heavily on their income to support themselves and loved ones, disability insurance is a must.