Policyholders Can Sue for Health Insurer’s Refusal to Cover Proton Beam Therapy Cancer Treatment Says Washington Supreme Court

On October 3, 2019, the Washington Supreme Court decided Strauss v. Premera Blue Cross, holding the Strausses could sue Premera Blue Cross for denying coverage for Proton Beam Therapy to treat prostate cancer.

Mr. Strauss had a Premera health insurance policy. The policy promised Premera would pay for “medically necessary” treatment. Mr. Strauss was diagnosed with prostate cancer and his doctor recommended Proton Beam Therapy treatment. Mr. Strauss’ doctor believed Proton Beam Therapy had fewer side effects than traditional radiation therapy because it exposes less of the body to radiation.

Premara refused coverage, claiming Proton Beam Therapy was not “medically necessary.” Premara said there was no proof Proton Beam Therapy had fewer adverse side effects than traditional radiation therapy. The Strausses filed a lawsuit.

Because there were no clinical studies on point, the Strausses supported their case with testimony from two radiation oncologists that Proton Beam Therapy would lead to fewer side effects because it exposed less of the body to radiation. Premera argued the Strausses could never prove Proton Beam Therapy was medically necessary without clinical studies. The trial court agreed with Premera and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Washington Supreme Court reversed, holding the Strausses’ case could move forward. The Supreme Court emphasized the absence of clinical evidence did not bar the Strausses’ claim. The Supreme Court found the Strausses’ expert doctors were qualified and that the trial court was wrong to reject the doctors’ opinions purely because no clinical studies existed. Importantly, the Supreme Court also rejected certain prior cases Premera relied on, holding those cases were wrongly decided.

The Strauss case is an important victory for policyholders and patients. Health insurance disputes can be very difficult, particularly because health insurance policyholders often have fewer consumer protections and are at greater risk of abuse by their insurers. Health insurers often use the words “medically necessary” as magic words that mean you have no right to the healthcare your doctor prescribed. This is especially true with novel treatments for complex diseases like cancer. This ruling will hopefully empower more people to pursue the treatment they need without worrying about insurance coverage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s