Articles Posted in Health Insurance

In a win for healthcare consumers, a federal judge in Washington D.C. last week struck down major parts of a Department of Labor regulation that expanded the ability of small employers and sole proprietors to band together to form Association Health Plans (AHPs) to evade key requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Although AHPs are bound by some of the requirements of the ACA, they do not have to provide all of the benefits mandated under the ACA, and they can use factors such as age, gender and occupation to set premiums when other small plans may not do so.  While the Department of Labor touted the regulation as providing a way for small businesses to get more affordable health insurance coverage, critics said that the new regulation was an invitation to fraud, by giving incentives to shady operators to offer cheap plans that are literally too good to be true.  State and federal regulators have regularly tried to clamp down on such fraudulent schemes, which have left workers and their families with hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid medical claims over the years.  In addition, many saw the regulation as a not so subtle way to undermine the ACA, by gutting many of the consumer protections and attracting healthier people away from the ACA marketplaces with lower premiums.

Attorneys general from eleven states and the District of Columbia brought suit, claiming the regulation violated both the ACA and ERISA, the federal statute that regulates employer-provided healthcare plans and other employee benefits.  The district court agreed, holding that the regulation could not be squared with ERISA because it allowed unrelated employers and business owners with no employees to join AHPs, thereby expanding the concept of ERISA healthcare plans beyond the context of employment.  The court also concluded that the regulation created absurd results under the ACA, and would “undermine the market structure that Congress so carefully crafted.”  The court has asked the government for briefing on whether any part of the regulation can stand given last week’s ruling.  Once the Court has ruled on that final issue, the Department of Justice has indicated that it will appeal.  In the meantime, many consumer healthcare advocates are celebrating the court’s order disallowing what they saw as an attempt to do an end-run around ERISA and the ACA.

Seeking treatment when symptoms from mental health conditions become severe can be scary. A person experiencing paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations may not be able to advocate for themselves. They may not be able to tell doctors and nurses which medications they have adverse reactions to, how to best treat their symptoms, and who to call in case of emergencies. This may lead to them being put in situations that exacerbate rather than relieve their symptoms.

One tool that can help is a Psychiatric Advance Directive, or PAD.   A PAD is written by a currently competent person who lives with a mental illness.  The PAD describes treatment preferences and/or names a health care proxy or agent to make decisions if the person is unable to do so for themselves.

What a PAD Can and Cannot Do

April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, so we thought we would write a blog entry talking about the illness and the organization that provides information, support and education for those who suffer from Parkinson’s.

The Parkinson’s Foundation (PF) works to find a cure, to advance research, to increase knowledge, to empower the community and to ensure that those living with the disease enjoy the best quality of life possible.

Many of our clients suffer from Parkinson’s.  This organization can provide valuable information for our clients and their families on topics that include: understanding the illness, coping with a recent diagnosis, managing Parkinson’s and support for care partners and family. These are just a few examples of the many resources available on the PF’s website.

Many large companies offer employees “self-insured” or “self-funded” ERISA plans to provide disability insurance or health insurance benefits. However, these companies are not in the business of administering health or disability claims. This makes sense. Boeing doesn’t know how to evaluate a short term disability claim. Intel isn’t in the long term disability business. AT&T doesn’t know how to read medical billing codes. So, instead of trying to do this itself, most companies hire other companies to administer the disability or health insurance claims.

These “third-party” companies are either in the business of administering ERISA benefit plans (e.g. Sedgwick and Reed Group) or are already administering these types of claims because they offer medical or disability insurance themselves (e.g. Cigna and Aetna). In theory, a benefit of this structure is that the entity making the claims decision is not the same entity that has to pay the claim. There is no structural conflict of interest.

How do courts view this type of structure if a lawsuit is filed? In such a situation there was a denial of disability benefits or a medical claim was denied. If the ERISA Plan conferred discretionary authority to the claim administrator – and almost all do this – the court reviews the denial of benefits under the plan for an abuse of discretion. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Brunch, 489 U.S. 101, 115 (1989). Once the court determines that the insurance policy unambiguously grants discretion to the entity that denied the claim – here the third party administrator – the court must determine whether the administrator or fiduciary was operating under a conflict of interest. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. (MetLife) v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105 (2008) (“Often the entity that administers the plan, such as an employer or an insurance company, both determines whether an employee is eligible for benefits and pays benefits out of its own pocket. We here decide that this dual role creates a conflict of interest; that a reviewing court should consider that conflict as a factor in determining whether the plan administrator abused its discretion in denying benefits; and that the significance of the factor will depend upon the circumstances of the particular case.”); Abatie v. Alta Health & Life Ins. Co., 458 F.3d 955, 965 (9th Cir. 2006) (“Abuse of discretion review applies to a discretion-granting plan even if the administrator has a conflict of interest. But Firestone also makes clear that the existence of a conflict of interest is relevant to how a court conducts abuse of discretion review.”).

Kate Weissman is willing to brave litigation with a $150 billion health insurance company to bring about change in our healthcare system. On March 26, 2019, Ms. Weissman filed a class action lawsuit to challenge what she alleges to be UnitedHealthcare’s unfair and deceptive policies and procedures for determining whether a prescribed treatment or medication is medically necessary (utilization review). Ms. Weissman alleges that UnitedHealthcare’s utilization review process is skewed toward the denial of coverage based upon inadequate internal medical policies placed in the hands of unqualified medical directors.  This alleged institutional pattern and practice of wrongful conduct results in the systematic denial of coverage for medically necessary proton beam radiation therapy (“PBT “) for UnitedHealthcare’s insured members suffering with cancer, while offering coverage for far less expensive, though far more harmful, conventional radiation treatment.

In October 2015, 30-year-old Ms. Weissman was diagnosed with stage IIB cervical cancer. After various treatments and a relentless battle for her life, her doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital recommended PBT to avoid grave damage to surrounding tissue and organs. On April 6, 2016, UnitedHealthcare denied coverage, contending that PBT is experimental or investigational or unproven. Ms. Weissman alleges that PBT is an established form of treatment that is widely accepted by physicians, government agencies and many insurers and other payers, including Medicare and Medicaid. UnitedHealthcare relied on its own internal policies, as interpreted and applied to Ms. Weissman’s case by UnitedHealthcare’s medical directors, in denying coverage for PBT.  UnitedHealthcare would only agree to cover the more conventional intensity-modulated radiation therapy, which is about half the cost of PBT.

Ms. Weissman, who volunteers with Cervivor to advocate for the cervical cancer community, recognizes that she was fortunate enough to have the $95,000.00 to pay for the proton beam treatment ordered by her doctors so that she would not have to settle for the more dangerous and damaging conventional treatment. She is now fighting for those who cannot afford that choice.

Disability is not measured only by one’s ability to lift, walk, stand, sit, etc.  Rather, the California definition of total disability in a policy insuring one’s ability to perform their own occupation is:

“A disability that renders one unable to perform with reasonable continuity the substantial and material acts necessary to pursue his usual occupation in the usual or customary way.”

In policies insuring one’s ability to perform “any occupation” or “any reasonable occupation,” the definition has been stated as:

A recent 2018 American Society of Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) study published findings about insurance approval and appeal outcomes at a large-volume proton therapy center, one of the estimated 111 proton therapy centers worldwide. The study showed that proton therapy prior authorization rates were substantially higher for Medicare patients vs. privately insured patients — 91% vs. 30% approval on initial request, at a median 3 days and 14 days from inquiry to determination.

Of the 306 patients initially denied coverage, 276 appealed the decision, and denial was overturned for 189 patients (68%; median time, 21 days from initial inquiry).

It is absolutely essential that proton therapy providers put together strong appeal letters for their patients to increase the chances that insurance decisions are overturned during the administrative claims/appeals review process.  If a patient is insured under an ERISA-governed plan then the administrative record becomes, in some cases, the only evidence that a court can examine if proton therapy is denied on appeal leading to civil litigation.

A recent analysis of 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health data indicated that as many as one in six U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 has a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety problems or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The analysis published in JAMA Pediatrics also found that nearly half of children with these disorders did not receive counseling or treatment from a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker.

Early diagnosis and treatment are very helpful for these children, but some families may have trouble accessing mental health care.

Problems accessing mental health care come in various forms. Some families may struggle to get the care their children need due to a shortage of child psychiatrists, psychologists, and behavior therapists. Other families may not have a mental health provider in the vicinity and may not be able to travel long distances to visit one. And for some families, their insurance company may not authorize the treatment and the family simply cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket for the care their child needs.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. The cause of MS is still unknown – scientists believe the disease is triggered by an as-yet-unidentified environmental factor in a person who is genetically predisposed to respond.

According to the National MS Society, MS is thought to affect more than 2.3 million people worldwide. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following risk factors may increase a person’s risk of developing MS:

We recently wrote about how the Trump administration wants to expand the use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in evaluating disability claims. In that post we noted that Kantor & Kantor proved, in Court, that social media posts are of limited value in deciding if someone is unable to work. What did the Court say?

The issue came before Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, United States District Court Judge in the Northern District of California. She was asked to decide if our client had proven he was disabled by back and leg pain of unknown origin. For years our client struggled to continue working as a tax professional at Hitachi despite ever increasing back and leg pain. This job required high cognitive ability, including critical thinking, decision-making, complex problem solving, and high levels of concentration.

He underwent multiple back surgeries, but this did not give him pain relief. In order to get some degree of pain relief, he had to take opioid medications. While this somewhat helped the pain, a medication side effect was difficulty concentrating. Because of the pain and inability to concentrate, our client’s work performance suffered. He had to stop working.

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