Insurance companies are very fond of finding ways to avoid paying out any money on behalf of their customers. In fact, they employ people who are actually specialists at that sort of thing, and these people will go to great lengths to prevent their employers from having to pony up.
Many people are aware that private insurance companies as well as government agencies which provide social services conduct investigations on people enrolled in their plans, looking for evidence to deny benefits, and that these organizations will go to great lengths to find information to support their investigations. This is something which many people with disabilities must be aware of, or risk having disability insurance, health insurance, and social services denied on the grounds of the results of such investigations.
The Internet, in particular, has proved to be quite the goldmine for insurance industry snooping, as Nathalie Blanchard learned recently. This Canadian woman lost her health insurance benefits because the insurance company found photographs of her looking happy. On Facebook. And decided that these images were evidence that she was not actually depressed, and therefore was not entitled to benefits.
This cautionary tale is one among many; insurance companies are clearly Internet savvy and becoming more so all the time, and it’s an important thing to bear in mind when deciding how much personal information to disclose on the Internet. Historically, the primary concern has been about personal safety, but for people with disabilities, we also need to think about the safety of our benefits, because a single blog post, comment, or photograph could become evidence which is used to deny an insurance claim or to refuse to provide coverage.
True privacy is a short commodity on the Internet. Even private, password-protected spaces can be penetrated, and pseudonyms can be broken. For people like me, who make our own names common knowledge, the relatively thin veil of privacy doesn’t even exist. I often fall into the trap of thinking of the Internet as a safe place, forgetting that other people are actually on the Internet, and that not all of them are my friends, and I know that many others do the same.
Social attitudes about disability mean that if someone with a disability dares to say “I had a great day today,” or “I’m in minimal pain tonight,” or “I’m having fun and enjoying my life,” it’s read to suggest that this person is no longer disabled. No longer needs benefits and assistance. This is really frustrating, because we like to talk about our good days and accomplishments and the things that make us happy. A huge part of disability activism is about pointing out that disability is not a tragedy, and that it’s possible to have fun! While disabled! To enjoy life, even!
Yet, we run up against the problem that our very advocacy can be used as evidence to hurt people by organizations which have a vested interest in cutting down on benefits payments. Participating in a march, writing on a disability activism website, being outspoken, leaving a simple comment somewhere on the Internet, sticking your neck out, these are all things which put us in danger because they can be used to gather evidence against us. Even as we advocate, we run the risks of compromising ourselves and others. Even as we work to change social attitudes, those attitudes are weaponized to deny benefits and claims. To drop us from insurance policies. To inform us that no, we are not entitled to social services.
Insurance companies seize upon these social attitudes, and comb through the Internet to find evidence that their customers might have the audacity to have fun while being disabled. That photograph of you skiing with a grin on your face must mean that you don’t really have [condition]. The fact that you update a sporadic blog means that you can’t possibly have [condition]. That you admit to [something] must mean that [condition] is your fault and you violated [clause] in your insurance policy. The very fact that you do anything other than bemoaning your lot in life must mean that you’re not really disabled.
It’s hard to think like insurance companies are looking over your shoulder, reading everything you write. But it’s important to think that way; it’s important to remember that the Internet is a public place. Controlling the release of personal and identifying information about yourself is critical for self-protection. You can’t control whether or not you get investigated, but you can try to limit what investigators see, and you can try to think about how an outsider might read a comment, photograph, post, or other activity.
And being aware of the dangers to others is important too. If I talk about my “hypothetical” friend with [condition] who [did something], am I inadvertently outing my friend? Can the insurance company connect me to [friend] and use what I wrote as evidence that [friend’s] benefits should be denied? Can family members of [friend] figure out who I am talking about and draw conclusions of their own from what I wrote? That picture I posted on [site] with [friend] smiling and laughing, is that going to become the cornerstone of a case used to argue that [friend] doesn’t have a chronic pain condition?
A few examples of the large cost of small things:
In Toronto, a doctor’s voicemail said he was on holiday, so it was decided that his signature on benefits forms was forged, and benefits were denied: “Hundreds protest suspension of social assistance health benefit.”
Profiles on social networking sites are used as evidence by insurance companies in benefits litigation: “Think Before You ‘Tweet’: The Perils of Social Utility Networks on Disability and Personal Injury Litigation.”
The specifics of Nathalie Blanchard’s story: “Insurance Company Revokes Depressed Woman’s Benefits Over Facebook Photos.”
In new Jersey, several teens were denied eating disorder coverage because of content on their MySpace and Facebook profiles: “Did Facebook lead to health insurance denial?“