Health Insurer Ordered to Pay $25.5 Million For Wrongful Cancer Treatment Denial

In a timely followup to last week’s discussion of how to fight health insurance denials, this week an Oklahoma jury ordered health insurer Aetna to pay $25.5 million for denying coverage for insured’s Orrana Cunningham’s cancer treatment bills.   Aetna had denied coverage for Orrana’s treatment in 2014 on the basis it was “experimental;” after being denied coverage for this treatment, Orranna passed away the next year.

The case illustrates one of the classic issues in a health insurance or disability insurance coverage dispute.  In typical cases, the insured’s family doctor or specialist prescribes treatment or time off work after examining the insured, diagnosing an illness or injury, and identifying appropriate treatment.  The insurer typically denies coverage based on the opinions of a physician on the insurer’s payroll; these “file review” physicians usually don’t practice medicine in the conventional sense, but work for the insurer reviewing medical records of insureds to advise the company whether to cover the treatment or disability.

As you could imagine, the doctor on the company’s payroll has a powerful incentive to tell the insurer what it wants to hear, which is typically that there is no coverage and the insurer need not pay for costly treatment.   Moreover, the insurer’s physician has no history of treating the patient, virtually never examines the patient, and limits their analysis to a cursory review of the patient’s medical records.  In many cases, the physician is so overworked they give little or no attention to the patient’s medical history or treatment needs before denying coverage.

That’s what happened to Orrana Cunningham.  In the course of the lawsuit, it came out that Aetna’s doctor reviewing Orrana’s medical records was pressured to review more than 80 patients’ cases a day.  The plaintiffs also told the jury Aetna’s file reviewers were unqualified, and were compensated based on Aetna’s profit – not based on getting claims right.

The plaintiffs’ attorney reported a juror approached him after the trial and emphasized the jury “wanted to send a message to Aetna” to fix a broken health insurance system.

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