Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Is the Doctor in, Please?

In preparing, formulating and filing a Federal Disability Retirement application under FERS or CSRS, the support of one’s treating doctor is essential in putting together an effective presentation to the Office of Personnel Management.  Sometimes, even doctors have to be reminded of his or her “obligation” to a patient.  When, how, and in what manner of approaching the doctor, is a discretionary element of the process best left up to the patient.  

The reason why the “treating doctor”, as delineated by cases and opinions rendered by Administrative Judges at the Merit Systems Protection Board and by Judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, is the best one to provide a clinical assessment and evaluation of one’s ability or inability, and the extent thereof, of performing one or more of the essential elements of one’s job, is that the long-term relationship that has been (or should have been) established over these many years of treatment, is a foundational basis of being able to ascertain the abilities, capabilities, and limitations of the patient’s physical, emotional and mental condition. 

If a treating doctor hides behind the excuse of saying that he or she is not “equipped” to make a disability determination, or that there are doctors “out there” who specialize in disability determinations, and he/she is not one of them, an explanatory discussion should be engaged in with the doctor, which should include at least the following three (3) elements:  (1)  A reminder of the history of the doctor-patient relationship, (2) that your particular doctor is the one who knows the intimate details of your medical conditions and the history of treatment engaged in, and (3) that such administrative headaches resulting in obtaining Federal Disability Retirement benefits from the Office of Personnel Management is a vital part of the long and recuperative process that the doctor has been trying to attain.  

Ultimately, it is the treating doctor who is the best one to render an opinion as to whether a Federal or Postal employee whom the doctor is treating, can continue to perform all of the essential elements of one’s particular job.  The question then is, Is the doctor in?  Meaning:  Is the doctor still going to “be there” when it really counts?

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

Federal and Postal Disability Retirement: Understanding the Doctor

A question I often ask the treating doctor at the end of a Hearing before an Administrative Judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board (obviously for Disability Retirement benefits under FERS & CSRS) is:  Do you have an opinion as to whether Mr. X/Ms. Y is a malingerer? The reason I ask such a question is to establish in the mind of the Administrative Judge, that after all of the clinical examinations, the treatment modalities, the diagnostic testing, etc., does the doctor have a personal opinion about the individual who is seeking to obtain Federal Disability Retirement benefits

Obviously, there are multiple questions which I ask as a follow-up; and, indeed, the question as to the status of the client/applicant requests a professional opinion about the patient — but implicit in that question is also a rather personal one.  It goes to the heart of who the patient/applicant is, and what the doctor believes about this particular applicant/patient.  For, to resolve any doubts about the underlying motive of the patient is not only important to the Administrative Judge in a Federal Disability Retirement application; it is equally important that the doctor is comfortable in his own mind, as to the clear and honest intention of his patient.  Conveying that comfort from the voice of the treating doctor to the ears of the deciding Judge, is no small matter.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

OPM Disability Retirement: Thank the Medical Professionals

If not for the doctors, disability retirement would obviously not be a possibility.  Of course, one may make the self-evident statement that being supportive of a Federal Disability Retirement application is simply part of a doctor’s job; and, to some extent, that would be true.  Doctors should indeed be willing to write up supportive medical narrative reports for their patients. 

Nevertheless, it is because of the doctor, the effort expended, the willingness to testify at a Merit Systems Protection Board Hearing, that the Office of Personnel Management even listens, or reverses a prior denial, and grants a disability retirement application.  Especially when a case gets denied twice by the Office of Personnel Management, it becomes crucial to have the cooperation of the treating doctor to testify in an MSPB Hearing.  This is normally done by telephone, thereby making it a minimal imposition upon the doctor’s time.  Indeed, I often only take a total of 30 minutes of the doctor’s time, including preparation and actual testimony, for an MSPB Hearing.  But the very fact that the doctor is willing to testify — to speak to the Administrative Judge directly to give his or her medical opinion — is often enough to convince OPM to change course, and grant the disability retirement benefits. 

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill

Merit Systems Protection Board: A Different Animal

When an individual has attempted to obtain disability retirement under FERS or CSRS on his/her own, but has failed at both the initial stage as well as the Reconsideration Stage, while it is true that a Hearing before an Administrative Judge at the MSPB is to be heard de novo (meaning, heard “anew” and where new evidence may be submitted), it is always important to try and introduce something new above and beyond medical reports and records. This is why I normally insist upon having at least one doctor testify over the telephone. That way, everything can be presented and exposed: the Judge is able to hear first-hand the medical assessment and opinion of the treating doctor, and allow the doctor to be subjected to as much cross-examination as OPM’s representative wants.

This latter aspect is important for the administrative judge to see — that we (the applicant and the attorney) have nothing to hide; the opinion of the doctor is unequivocal and informed, and none of OPM’s questions can shake that opinion. This takes careful preparation and a systematic, thoughtful series of questions and answers between the attorney and the doctor, to meet each of the legal criteria demanded for approval of a disability retirement claim.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire

FERS & CSRS Disability Retirement: Remember the Details

At each state of attempting to get a Federal disability retirement application approved, it is important to “remember the details”. For example, at the Merit Systems Protection Board level, in conducting a Hearing, remember that if the best medical evidence/testimony you are able to provide is through a health professional other than an “M.D.” (e.g., a therapist, a Nurse Practitioner, a Chiropractor, etc.), always point out the unique credentials of the provider, to include whether in the particular state in which he/she practices, if greater latitude and responsibilities are given to the practitioner.

Thus, it may be that in one state a Nurse Practitioner can exam, diagnose, and prescribe a medication regimen without the direct oversight of a medical doctor, whereas in other states such latitude may not be allowed. This should be pointed out to the Judge, to emphasize greater credibility of the testimony of the practitioner. Further, remember that in Vanieken-Ryals v. OPM (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, November, 2007), the Court therein reiterated that the medical documentation/evidence required must come from a ‘licensed physician or other appropriate practitioner’, and so long as that medical practitioner utilizes “established diagnostic criteria” and that which is “consistent with generally accepted professional standards”, the testimony cannot be undermined. Use the strengths of the case you have, and emphasize the little details that matter.

Sincerely,

Robert R. McGill, Esquire