Are the NFL Disability Plan’s “Neutral Physicians” Truly Neutral?

Posted December 13th, 2007 by RetiredPlayers

The NFL and NFLPA announced changes to the disability plan that they claim will streamline the process for players seeking disability benefits.  In a December 12, 2007, article in The New York Times, Gene Upshaw outlined six changes to the disability plan as a result of a review conducted by an outside company.  The union and league claim the intent of the changes is to speed up both the application and appeal process of the NFL’s disability plan.  None of the six changes address the fact that only two percent of former players currently receive any type of NFL disability benefit even though the NFL is widely considered the most brutal major American professional sports league.

Once a player has submitted an application for disability benefits, he is sent for an “Initial Medical Examination”.  The player is then examined by a “neutral physician” who provides a written report on the players condition.  According to page 10 of the NFLPA “White Paper”, “These physicians are called neutral physicians because they are appointed jointly by the Retirement Board members appointed by the Players Association and the NFL.” The “neutral physician’s” report is then reviewed by a two person Disability Initial Claims Committee who then make a decision on the applicant’s claim.

If an applicant is dissatisified with the decision of the Disability Initial Claims Committee, he can then appeal the decision to the six member Retirement Board.  Upon appeal, the applicant is sent to at least one more doctor for examination before the appeal is presented for a vote by the Retirement Board.  If there is a deadlock vote of three Retirement Board members voting to award a disability benefit and three voting against awarding the benefit, the decision is “almost always” decided by the review of a Medical Advisory Physician.

According to pages 11 and 12 of the NFLPA “White Paper”, “If the dispute is over a medical issue, such as whether a player medically is substantially unable to work, either side (the player-appointed trustees or the management-appointed trustees) can send the player to one of the Plan’s top, pre-approved, neutral three doctors. These doctors are called “Medical Advisory Physicians(“MAPs”), and their medical decisions are binding on the Retirement Board. This final review will almost always resolve any deadlock between voting trustees.”

Are these physicians truly neutral toward the applicant merely because the members of the Retirement Board have appointed a doctor to be a “neutral physician”?

Dr. Bernard Bach is one of three “Medical Advisory Physicians” for the NFL disability plan.  According to page 12 of Dr. Bach’s curriculum vitae, he once worked as a team physician for the New York Giants.   Team physicians are employees of team owners.  Why would the three union trustees appointed by Gene Upshaw allow a doctor, who was once employed by an NFL team owner, to make a “binding” decision on a player’s application for disability benefits?  Can this doctor truly be considered “neutral” toward a player applicant if he was once employed by a team owner?  Wouldn’t it be prudent to appoint a doctor without this potential conflict of interest to serve as a “Medical Advisory Physician”?

Page 39 of Dr. Bach’s résumé states that he made presentations at NFL Disability Training Program’s.  Is there any special training needed to rate the level of disability of a former NFL player, as opposed to a disabled employee in another industry?  What type of training creates a system where only 2 percent of all retired players are able to qualify for any type of NFL disability benefit?  We are hoping these are questions that Congress will want answered.

While changes to the NFL disability plan are a vital step toward correcting the existing problems, it is even more important to have the proper people in place to implement and administer the plan.  These are additional issues that must be addressed.

  • While appearing on the HBO show CostasNow, tennis legend John McEnroe said he was inspired by Kansas City Chief Kyle Turley’s Gridiron Guardian Sunday initiative and will donate $25,000 toward the cause. McEnroe’s action prompted former NBA player Charles Barkley, who was also appearing on the show, and show host Bob Costas to match the donation.
  • Several former and current Minnesota Vikings players held a press conference on December 11, 2007, to discuss the issues that retired NFL players face.  More active players, including Minnesota Vikings players Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera, Ryan Cook, Marcus Johnson and Ben Leber, announced plans to donate a portion of their game checks in support of Gridiron Guardian Sunday.  Others on the list of NFL players who will donate include Chiefs guard John Welbourn, Houston Texans offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam and New York Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell. Earlier, Kyle Turley said that San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson and Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzales also were going to take part.

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