NFL Disability Plan Draws Congressional Attention

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

For a quarter of a century John Hogan has burrowed through the pages of disability plans, looking for traps, digging for loopholes. His practice as a disability and Social Security lawyer in the Atlanta suburb of Sugar Hill, Ga., pits him against faceless bureaucracies of America's insurance industry almost every day, leaving him to wade through its muck of paperwork and regulations.

Yet asked what organization is the worst at providing disability benefits to its employees, he doesn't hesitate.

The NFL.

"Not that insurance companies are easy," he said one recent morning from a downtown Atlanta conference room. "But insurance companies follow [government] timelines. They are supposed to rule 45 days after a claim is made. The NFL plan completely ignores it."

Today, after months of complaints from retired players, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law will hold a hearing to look into the league's pension and disability plans and the way they have been managed. Among those testifying will be former Minnesota Vikings guard Brent Boyd, who was turned down countless times despite a head injury that has left him unable to work, and Cyril Smith, the Baltimore lawyer who helped represent Hall of Fame center Mike Webster's family in a protracted battle against the plan that they finally won in 2005, three years after Webster's death.

But perhaps more significant to the retirees will be Congress's interest in their own union, the NFL Players Association, which -- as a part manager of the plan -- they believe is to blame for their ordeals.

"The way I see it, they're all tied in together," said Hart Lee Dykes, a former New England Patriots wide receiver and Hogan client who has been turned down four times despite being sent to eight doctors, three of whom declared him disabled. "The players association is supposed to be for the players, right? The players are suffering. What is the point?"

Players and their attorneys complain that claims are not only drawn out but they are often turned down with little or no explanation. This, along with the extended time for ruling on benefits requests, could be considered violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the guidelines used in most retirement and disability programs.

Hogan and Smith both say this is highly unusual for disability plans. Normally, when dealing with insurance companies or big corporations, the notice of denial will include a list of missing documents the applicant needs to be reconsidered; for instance, an MRI exam of the spine for claims of a significant back injury. The applicant would then go get the MRI and either reapply or appeal.

They point the finger for this confusion at the NFLPA in part because the players association has one representative on a two-person panel that makes the initial determination of disability. The union also chooses three members for the six-member board that decides on the fates of the players who have made it past the first panel.

"It's typical in collective bargaining for a corporation to take its cue from the union," Smith said. "When you have [NFLPA executive director Gene] Upshaw say he is going to break [former player Joe] DeLamielleure's neck, that shows his interest in the issue since DeLamielleure was a critic of the disability process and Upshaw picks the guys on the board."

Upshaw was quoted in a Philadelphia Daily News story as saying he would break DeLamielleure's neck as a response to the criticism. The union has said the comment was taken out of context.

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