Exceptions to Your Right to Refuse Medical Treatment

When You Can't Say No to Treatment

In most situations, Americans have the right to refuse medical treatment. An exception could occur when someone else is subsidizing a person's income during his or her period of injury, sickness, and inability to work.

In most of these cases, a person may not refuse treatment if doing so will interfere with that person's ability to return to work. This is because refusing treatment means the person will continue to need assistance in order to pay living expenses.

This article looks at the three main exceptions to your right to refuse treatment.

A man looking at his prescription medicine
Tom Merton / Getty Images

Workers' Compensation

If you have been injured or you became ill as a result of your work or your work environment, you may receive income through workers' compensation. In this situation, you may not have the right to refuse treatment. Specific laws addressing this issue vary from state to state. Generally speaking, however, the idea is that an employee can't legally continue to benefit financially by refusing treatment.

There will be gray areas, of course. There may be times when someone will want to refuse treatment for a medical problem that isn't directly related to that person's occupation. Refusing to get a flu shot, for example, is not the same as refusing surgery that will make it possible for you to return to work.

If you get workers' compensation and decide to refuse any sort of treatment, it's important to follow the right procedures to inform your employer and case worker of your decision.

Social Security Disability (SSD)

People who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) may also find they cannot legally refuse medical treatment. Because Social Security is funded by taxpayers, you are expected to accept any treatment that will help you return to your job. If you do refuse this kind of treatment, your SSDI payments may be terminated.

There are also gray areas to this rule. SSDI recipients are expected to pursue all "reasonable" forms of treatment. Of course, "reasonable" is up to interpretation, and treatment outcomes are never certain.

If you're receiving SSDI payments and wish to refuse any sort of treatment, be sure you take the right steps to make that treatment refusal decision.

Private Disability

Private disability insurance will subsidize your income if you have an illness or injury that is unrelated to your job. This type of insurance is usually obtained through your employer or privately through a company like Aflac or MassMutual. If you have this type of insurance, your ability to refuse treatment will vary by insurer.

In general, the rules for refusal will be similar to those for Social Security disability and workers' compensation. The insurer won't let you refuse treatment if it means they will have to pay you more money over a longer period of time. If you refuse treatment, you may forfeit your payments.

If you receive any sort of disability payment and wish to refuse a treatment, be sure to take the right steps to make that treatment refusal decision.

Some Possible Exceptions

There are certain circumstances where it may be possible to refuse treatment even if your income is subsidized by one of these three programs. These exceptions are usually decided by a judge or a state agency. 

For example, a patient diagnosed with a terminal disease may be allowed to refuse treatment if there is little likelihood of ever returning to work, with or without treatment. You may also be able to refuse treatment if:

  • The treatment is life-threatening 
  • The treatment is high-risk and the chances it will be successful are low
  • You can't afford the treatment, and there are no free or low-cost alternatives available
  • Your healthcare provider advises a treatment that conflicts with the advice of another healthcare provider


In most circumstances, Americans have the right to refuse medical treatment. If your income is subsidized by someone else, however, the rules are different.

If you are getting payments from workers' compensation, Social Security, or disability insurance and you refuse treatment that would make it possible for you to return to work, you may lose your benefits. There may be some exceptions, however, so make sure to discuss any plan to refuse treatment with your employer and your case worker or insurance company.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Social Security. SSR 18-3p: Titles II and XVI: failure to follow prescribed treatment.

  2. Cigna. Long-Term Disability Insurance.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.