Living with Multiple Sclerosis and Disability

Multiple sclerosis is a serious and unpredictable medical condition which effects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. Worldwide, more than 2.3 million people are affected by MS and every week approximately 200 people are diagnosed. Over 400,000 Americans live with MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recognizes that “Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are moving us closer to a world free of MS.” While the root causes of MS are still being researched and debated, it is believed that some form of virus or environmental trigger causes the body’s immune system to target benevolent cells in the myelin sheath.  The myelin sheath is a protective fatty tissue around the nerve fibers that serves as a form of insulation to protect the electrical impulses traveling the nerves of the CNS. The Institute for Neurodegenerative Disorders explains how with MS, the myelin is destroyed, and “forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name”, appearing in the CNS and bringing with it an abundance of symptoms.

There is no known cure for MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommends that people with MS begin treatment with Avonex, Betaseron, Copaxone, or Rebif as these “drugs help to lessen the frequency and severity of MS attacks, reduce the accumulation of lesions in the brain, and slow progression of disability.” Many therapies are also available to treat MS symptoms.

Many individuals can continue to work for a long time before the symptoms associated with this disease, often fatigue, cognitive deficits, pain, spasticity, bladder problems, and muscle weakness impair their ability to continue working. People with MS may request work accommodations, such as: moving a workstation closer to the bathroom, allowing for longer breaks, allowing to work from home, allowing a flexible work schedule, parking closer to the work-site, adjusting desk height if a wheelchair or scooter is used. Once symptoms progress, many people with MS are unable to continue working and file for disability benefits.

Many of our clients have MS and insurance companies deny their benefits by asserting that they are capable of performing their regular occupation on a continuing basis despite mental impairment or are able to perform sedentary work despite physical limitations. However, courts have found MS to be a totally disabling disease. For example, in Kibel v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24308 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 25, 2015) Aetna conceded to Ms. Kibel’s MS diagnosis, but denied her claim for long term disability benefits because she was “[not] functionally impaired”. However, the court held that Ms. Kibel was entitled to disability benefits. The court recognized that MS is a progressive disease and with Ms. Kibel’s symptoms of gait disturbance, weakness, and numbness, she could not perform her physical job duties. Courts also recognize the disabling effect of “pathological fatigue and cognitive decline” caused by MS. Kreeger v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 766 F. Supp. 2d 991 (C.D. Cal. 2011).

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is a great source for people living with MS and has chapters all over the country. We often get referrals from their New Jersey chapter. We recently received a wonderful testament from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for our work. We at Bonny G. Rafel, LLC take a special interest in MS; we understand its progressive nature and truly disabling effect.

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