An NFL and players union-run fund that helps ailing retired players shut down its application process for nearly six months because of the coronavirus, irritating retirees who complained the league devoted resources toward safely starting the 2020 season on time but not to their medical needs.
The Associated Press interviewed four people familiar with the program, three of whom are retired players waiting for program administrators to schedule doctors' visits that are key to determining benefits. Last year, the program gave out $157 million to 2,247 applicants. One person familiar with the program estimated there were more than 200 applications and appeals that have been awaiting action for up to six months.
None of the players wanted their names used for fear of retribution by those who run the program, which is operated by the league and union.
All said they were perplexed by the league's willingness to hold training camps for more than 3,000 players this summer and kick off the season this week while suspending a program that doesn't have anything close to the social-distancing issues of the day-to-day logistics of an NFL season.
On Friday, two days after the AP questioned the league and union about the halt, the NFL said benefits coordinators were sending out letters to applicants announcing the resumption of doctor's appointments for some players.
According to the letter, which was obtained by AP, appointments will resume for some applicants if they are in the same state and live within a three-hour drive of the doctor. They will not resume for players applying for the plan’s neurocognitive benefit. A person familiar with the program said the move announced Friday could still leave an estimated three-quarters of applicants on hold.
“They do things from a reactive standpoint, and once somebody got the story right, all of the sudden they started back again,” one player said Friday. “There's a direct correlation there. They have to realize they're playing with people's lives and their health.”
That player said the suspension of his application deprived him from receiving benefits at a time he could least afford it; he said his work income slowed drastically after the onset of COVID-19.
“I was counting on that, and it put me in a horrible financial bind,” he said. “The things that happened with my health, even going to the doctor with a co-pay, that became a burden.”
The other players who spoke to AP earlier this summer relayed similar issues, while also expressing dismay at the stoppage of the application process.
“They started canceling the appointments, understandably,” said one of the players, who described a series of head and muscular injuries that have left him in daily pain and who will not necessarily benefit from the resumption of appointments. “Now, it's six months later, and, however people feel about COVID, people are living their lives again. The NFL has training camps going. And they're saying it's too dangerous for me to drive (two hours) to see a doctor. It's ridiculous.”
The AP obtained copies of letters sent from the program's benefits coordinator to different players — one from April, one from June and one from August — all of which say essentially the same thing: Applications have been suspended due to “the coronavirus and its extraordinary impact on public interactions, travel, and medical resources.”
“Your application will remain suspended until it is deemed reasonably safe to resume public travel, and any restrictions imposed by or upon the Plan’s neutral physicians has abated,” the letter said.
The messages were sent at the same time the league and its teams were planning for, or actively running, training camps with 80 or more players in each camp. The season kicked off Thursday night with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs playing the Houston Texans in front of about 17,000 fans. On Tuesday, the NFL announced that more than 44,500 COVID-19 tests had been administered to 8,349 players and team personnel over the previous week.
The letters explaining the delays reassured applicants that their benefits, if approved, will be paid retroactively; in most cases, the program pays approved applicants retroactively, starting with benefits for the two months before the application was received. The league also told AP that while the hold is in effect, every effort has been made to award benefits to players who might qualify for them without an exam by an independent physician.
The NFL Player Disability & Neurocognitive Benefit Plan, as it is officially known, came into existence as part of the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement between the players and the union. It was hailed as one of several efforts by both sides to pay greater respect and attention, and also provide increased benefits, to retired players.
It has three levels of benefits. In addition to the neurocognitive benefit, there is one that covers “total and permanent disability” (T&P) and a nonpermanent benefit that covers “line of duty” (LOD) injuries. Friday's resumption impacts only players applying for the T&P and LOD benefits.
The program pays most players between $3,000 and $11,250 a month, depending on the nature of their injuries and how long they played.
Even before the pandemic, the approval process could take months. In most cases, medical records and notes from the independent doctor’s visit are sent to a three-person approval committee. Most applications are determined in 45 days. Players who are denied can then go through an appeals process, most of which have lasted between three and six months.
“I filed last summer and I haven't had any income coming in since then,” said one player, who described himself as increasingly immobile because of injuries suffered in the NFL. He is the middle of an appeals process that began in 2019.
“When they brought everything to a full stop, there had been no progress at all," he said. “Even if they tell me ‘no,’ I can move on. But everything is stopped with no plan, and I'm completely stuck in limbo."