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.”).