The Perils of Social Media: How Insurance Companies Use Twitter, Facebook, and the Rest of the Internet to Deny Benefits

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?

13 Comments

  1. It’s so wrong and clearly having universal healthcare (in my dreams) won’t help much, since the biggest examples are from Canada.

    I keep returning to the depression case, because it’s so close to home and so scary. If I get approved for disability benefits, I’ll have to live like I’m in the first part of anti-depressant commercial* to keep the benefits. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

    *I think that also applies to chronic pain – the people in the ads don’t do anything and my chronic pain doesn’t let me do anything when it’s bad but be still.

    It sucks that it’s yet another reason to police yourself. You know what? I had some good times today – I took Dixie for a walk, I watched a bad but pretty movie – but they don’t erase the bad times. It’s possible to have both. (You know that, everyone here knows that, the people who matter in my life know that, but it never hurts to scream it from the rooftops as often as possible.)

  2. Perhaps I should fill my Facebook page with pictures of me curled up crying in the fetal position. Because, after all, that’s all people with mental illness do. Nobody will ever deny me coverage then.

    This is so messed up. I can’t believe that companies can even legally deny people coverage because of ridiculous things like this. That’d be as if I talked with my insurance company on the phone and they denied me care because I told the person on the phone that today was a good day for me. That’s a silly example, but this is just completely ridiculous.

  3. Moria – If you say anything but “my days are never good!” when the insurance person says “have a nice day” bam, you’re insurance-less.

    This isn’t helping my general insurance worries, you know. I worry enough about getting insurance as it is, now I have to worry about losing the hypothetical affordable good insurance from my amazing job that pays me to pet puppies?! This is too much! /silly

  4. Plenty of bad things can happen if you let out too much personal information on the web. Over at a romance writers’ board, we have a lady who’s ended up with a stalker as a result of what she has written and said on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. We have another whose soon-to-be-ex-husband is scouring the Internet for anything she has said to be used against her in divorce proceedings. There are stories of people who have lost out on jobs or been fired because of things they said online. This is another in the long list of possible outcomes.

    I think it’s important that people consider how much they’re willing to put out there and the possible consequences. People think that the Internet is anonymous, as long as you use a screen name, but that’s not absolutely true. How many scandals have there been because somebody outed an anonymous blogger? Nothing said on the Internet is ever truly private; even if you tell it to only one person, what do you do if that person turns vindictive and posts it all over the web?

    Myself, I’m not willing to constantly be looking over my shoulder because of the possibility that x, y, or z may happen because I’m too open. If it does, I’ll deal with it then. That’s how I feel personally; others have different comfort levels.

    I think this sort of thing is absolutely sick, especially coming from insurance companies, but not altogether surprising. I wonder how it will shake out, though, because I can’t imagine that making a determination to cease coverage on basis of a mere photograph is legal and would hold up in court.

  5. Myself, I’m not willing to constantly be looking over my shoulder because of the possibility that x, y, or z may happen because I’m too open. If it does, I’ll deal with it then.

    When “dealing with it” can involve being homeless and not being able to feed yourself or your children, let alone afford your medications etc, while you attempt to engage in a protracted court case against an opponent with unlimited money in a court that may well not even be accessible to you, it’s not quite as simple as making a choice to ignore the possibility.

  6. The denials in Canada aren’t for basic health care, but for extended benefits. Which is by no means a vast improvement, especially with the Toronto stuff since it’s cutting of benefits that are for people’s food needs.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Used Textbook Donations =-.

  7. @lauredhel:

    Again, I said “for myself.” I personally do not think that it is strong enough a likelihood to be a concern. As I stated above, others may feel differently, and everyone has to act according to their comfort level. I never once suggested anybody should do differently.

  8. This is why my identity is so very very concealed. My professional twitter is dissociated from my blogging one.
    .-= genderbitch´s last blog ..Some Words On “Making Peace” =-.

  9. My take on the whole mess is fairly straightforward. That there picture above this is me. I’ve been posting on the internet now (usenet, email, IRC, weblogs etc) since about 1997, and if there’s anything out there which is likely to be used against me (whether in a court of law or otherwise) it’s probably been out there at least that long. My web identity is fairly easily linkable to my “real” name (which is why I’m defaulting to using that now, rather than attempting to conceal things) and I’ve never been particularly cautious about what I’ve been saying over the years. I also figure I’m not likely to be able to get away with committing ‘net suicide (deleting this identity and creating a new one from scratch). So instead I live with it – and I’ll admit cheerfully one of the things I’m thankful for is I haven’t been dependent on an insurance company for my eating and walking around money. Even if Centrelink’s lovely review and recovery people might want to have me up in front of the tribunal for not being sufficiently deserving[1] while in receipt of government monies, they have to accumulate more evidence of the matter than one photo, three blog posts and a snarky letter from the neighbours about me being up until all hours gaming.

    Besides, I have Himself fighting in my corner – and he takes on large bureaucracies and petty bureaucrats as a sort of hobby (he started this while working for the Department of Social Security, and he still has fun with it). He’s also the type of Gemini person who gets away with doing things which are seemingly at 90 degrees to the rest of reality (as in, he does something, while I’m saying “that won’t… oh, it worked. How did you do that?”) and somehow hoodwinking reality for long enough to get away with it. It makes him do things like making sure there’s a doc[2] on his Centrelink record saying yes, moving from Cottesloe to Parmelia is a legal move in the great chess game of receiving the dole, and makes him keen on getting exact references to the exact portion of the Centrelink procedure manual which says it is so, but it’s a great comfort to have.

    [1] As in “deserving poor” – meek, mild, grateful for the scraps from the government’s table, no sinful behaviours, no forbidden pleasures etc. The preferred condition for all recipients of government benefits.
    [2] Document – a note attached to the computer file.

  10. An interesting post – certainly I know of a number of folks receiving benefits based on physical and mental healthcare issues whose online ‘snapshot’ postings might portray a differemt view of their health. Of course, the bottom line is that folks may suffer from long term illness and yet have ‘good days’, like you say. Such days should, of course, be taken in context and should not be treated differently to information about your health gained in conversation, for example.

    [Redacted for policing disability]

  11. Ok, clearly this needs to be said, because this keeps coming up in this thread: Comments which police disability are not acceptable at FWD. Read Bad Cripple to understand why policing disability and the forms it takes are not. Ok.

  12. *Sigh* Oh look. It’s Sunday, which means somebody is questioning whether or not we’re “sick enough.” Disappointing.

  13. Things like this are exactly why I try to use my paranoia to my advantage. I don’t let people take pictures of me, I don’t connect my real name to anything I do online (even registering for sites I use pseudonyms), and until recently I never made mention of my location. I’ve loosened up on that now but try to avoid giving specifics. For a while I even had a fake birthday that I would use, though I don’t remember when that was now. Also, Tor is awesome. The idea of anyone tracing what I say or do online to my identity is terrifying, partially because I know how easy it is. And things like this only further justify it in my mind.