Q&A with Evan George, Part 2: Investigating disability insurance

Published on
November 6, 2009

Evan George at the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a newspaper focused on the legal community, wrote a great investigative series about disability insurance last month. He spoke to Antidote last week about how he got started on the project. The second part of the interview is below. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Did you start small or did you immediately dive into looking up all 500+ cases?

A: I interviewed a couple of lawyers and a couple of plaintiffs. Everybody kept saying MetLife was the worst. They said Unum was the bad boy four years ago, and that company had actions against it. Now there are new bad players. So I at first honed in on MetLife because every case I saw when I started was MetLife. Then I had to step back and say it can't just be that one company. They did have the most lawsuits against them, but by no means was it contained just to their business.

Q: Were the plaintiffs' lawyers helpful in most cases or did you run into the classic scenario where they had settled the case and didn't want their clients talking?

A: There were several cases where I had already interviewed them and taken their picture and then the plaintiffs would settle. I would have everything that I needed, except what they got paid. I was glad that I had interviewed them early. I think the attorneys knew that the people they were hooking me up with might not be able to talk about their cases for very long. Whether they felt it would tip the scales if most judges who see these cases could read stories about this being a trend and not just an individual plaintiff, I don't know. The ones I spoke with deal specifically in this and they were extremely helpful and knowledgeable. You can take what they say with a grain of salt, but you could get a lot of information out of them. I didn't quote very many plaintiffs' lawyers. Their voices weren't necessary in the end, because it was really about the plaintiffs themselves and the companies.

Q: How did you get all those great memos and emails?

A: Lawyers. They might have a case that closed two years ago and weren't able to ever use this stuff. They might have a folder on their desktop that is, essentially, "smoking gun documents." They haven't been able to get it the documents to a federal court judge, but now I'm asking for them. It was almost like show-and-tell had started.

Q: So some of these documents were never filed in court?

A: Sometimes I would get discovery from PACER files, but a lot of the juicier stuff came from lawyers in California or other states directly. I talked to lawyers in Atlanta, New Jersey and Chicago. Some of these documents were great views into the way a company administers these policies. In one case, a company I didn't even name in the story set an exact number of 261 denials for the month and chastised employees for not hitting that mark. That was mind-boggling.

Q: Were there documents that you didn't think would be helpful but turned out to be key?

A: Employee evaluations. In one employee evaluation an employee at an insurance company was upset by the bad grade they got, and included in that was negative remarks from the supervisor about the employee too easily approving a 35-year-old's claim for disability insurance. "We're going to have to pay this insurance claim for 30 years!"

Q: Were any of the insurance companies more helpful than others?

A: Unum, because they've had a PR problem because of these denials and had a settlement with the state of California. They had a pretty good response and were actually more open to talking. They said, "this is a small percentage of the cases we do approve." They sent me a fact sheet and directed me to some information that put things in context. The other companies literally wouldn't say anything. I tried calling their defense lawyers because I wanted to get more than a "no comment." It was almost as if their public information department wasn't informed enough about this part of their business. And that's not entirely surprising. This is about 10 percent of their product line. It's not a huge money maker for them or a huge reporting issue for them to their stock holders. So the people at the bottom aren't even going to know how to help you. And that was frustrating.

Q: Did any of them try to threaten you?

A: No.

Q: You used Social Security as context, talking about their rejection rate and appeal rate. What other ways did you try to find good context for the subject?

A: A lot of my sources have been in the legal nonprofit world, and I had dealt extensively with the Disability Rights Legal Center at Loyola Law School. These are people who spend their time fighting to get people on Social Security. They are complaining about how twisted the system can be trying to get someone on Social Security. When I explained to them that I wasn't looking at that but was looking at the people who have gotten Social Security but can't get a disability insurance to pay their claim, they were really surprised. In August there were a couple of news stories saying that the Social Security Administration was predicting that 3.3 million workers would file disability claims. They were saying there is going to be a severe problem with trying to get all these people on Social Security. At the same time, I was talking to people who were supposed to be in that higher tier. People who had worked for Bank of America for 27 years and ended up in trouble. That was the other context I tried to put in. These weren't people shopping at the 99 Cent store. They had been making $90,000 a year. They thought there was a safety net, but it didn't catch them.

Q: You reporters at the Daily Journal turn out a tremendous amount of copy. Was there pressure from your editors to spend less time on this investigation and more time feeding the beast?

A: I had what any reporter would have in terms of, "OK, you're going to do a daily today." And sometimes I would make excuses and sometimes I couldn't. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much room they gave me to maneuver. Usually I write two stories a week, but instead I wrote one a week for about five months.

Q: Your editor, Evelyn Larrubia, as you know, was one of the lead reporters on a stunning series in the Los Angeles Times called "Guardians for Profit" that examined all the different ways court appointed guardians can game the system to get rich. What sort of guidance did she give you on the project?

A: With a lot of the mathematical calculations, I literally had no idea how to do them. She would sit with it for five minutes and them come over to my desk and say, "This is what we need to do." And when I would start to think, "Maybe I've done everything I can do in Excel," she would say "I worked for two years on a story, so you can't start boo-hooing it now. I have no sympathy." She was always saying, "don't worry about how much time it is taking, do it right." I hadn't worked at paper where they gave me that kind of time to work on a project. It was hard for me, because I kept feeling like I wasn't pulling my weight around the newsroom.

Q: What has been the response?

A: We are currently working on a follow, but the issue is very complicated. There's a lot of debate about whether it should be addressed at the state level or federal level and what makes the most sense in terms of alleviating some of this imbalance. And the answer is a little bit of both. But federal reform on this issue is so much tougher.

Q: Have you heard from the state Department of Insurance?

A: I have been talking with them about doing a follow. They had given me several interviews saying this insurance product doesn't exist. Then the story came out. Now the department is saying we may not have found the best people for you to talk with. We may have people who are more knowledgeable about this. When you are working on a project for six months and are calling them repeatedly for comment, this is a little surprising. But it also was telling to me about how seriously they have taken this issue.

Q: Where can reporters follow your example and find stories in their own states?

A: There were a lot of good cases in New York, Florida and Illinois. Those would all be safe bets.