Don’t Assume All Employer-Adjacent Insurance is ERISA-governed, Says Ninth Circuit

There’s often an erroneous assumption that any insurance a person buys in connection with their employment is automatically subject to ERISA. But ERISA does not regulate all employer-adjacent insurance. ERISA only applies to employee benefit “plans.” Whether an ERISA “plan” exists can be complex, but without one, an insurance policy will not be subject to ERISA even if an employer was involved in its purchase.

A recent Ninth Circuit decision is a good reminder of this. In Steiglemann v. Symetra Life Ins. Co., the appellate court determined that an insurance policy purchased in connection with the plaintiff’s employment was not subject to ERISA because the requirements for an employee benefit “plan” were not met. The decision is unpublished, meaning it may be persuasive to lower courts but is not binding.

Jill Steiglemann bought a disability insurance policy from Symetra Life Insurance Company. She had access to the policy through her membership in a trade association for insurance agents. Her company paid for the insurance. The lower court held that the policy was part of an employee benefit plan and subject to ERISA.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and held that the policy was not governed by ERISA. Even though Steiglemann’s employer arranged for the option for her to buy coverage and paid premiums, this was not enough to show the employer established an ERISA plan.

The employer never contracted to provide for coverage. It never promised to act as an administrator for the insurance. And it never took the steps necessary to maintain an ERISA plan, like recordkeeping and filing returns with the Department of Labor.

Steiglemann’s trade association also did not do the things necessary to create an ERISA plan. The association did not function for the main purpose of representing employees against their employer.

There was therefore no evidence that Steiglemann’s insurance policy was part of an employee benefit plan. And without a plan, the policy was not subject to ERISA.

This decision is a helpful reminder not to assume that ERISA applies to all employer-adjacent insurance.

Insurers Still Breaking Mental Health Coverage Rules Says Department of Labor

The 2022 report to Congress from the Department of Labor (DoL) on compliance by group health plans with the federal mental health parity laws identifies numerous instances of continued discrimination in coverage for treatment of mental health diagnoses.

Federal law generally prohibits insurers from discriminating against people who need coverage for treatment of mental health conditions. Basically, health insurers cannot have limitations that are more restrictive of treatment for a mental health condition than for other conditions. These rules have only become more important since the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to mental health issues for many Americans; for instance, the CDC noted a 30% increase of overdose deaths since the pandemic.

In large part for this reason, DoL has made enforcement of the mental health parity rules a priority in recent years. One new enforcement tool is a 2021 rule passed by Congress requiring health plans to provide DoL with a comparative analysis of treatment limitations for mental health conditions to help DoL ensure these practices follow the law.

DoL’s report identified many problems with health plans’ reporting about mental health parity. For instance:

  • Failure to document comparisons of treatment limitations for mental health limitations before implementing those limitations;
  • Lack of evidence or explanation for their assertions; and
  • Failure to identify the specific benefits affected by mental health limitations.

DoL also noted that enforcing these reporting rules had led to the removal of several widespread insurer practices that violated the mental health parity rules.

For example, one major insurer was found to routinely deny certain behavioral health treatment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This resulted in denying early intervention that could have lifelong results for autistic children. DoL found over 18,000 insureds affected by this exclusion.

Another example involved the systemic denial of treatment used in combatting the opioid epidemic. New research has found that combining therapy with medication can be more effective for treating opioid addiction than medication alone. DoL found a large health plan excluded coverage for this therapy in violation of the mental health parity rules.

Other treatments DoL’s report identified as being denied on a widespread basis in violation of the law included counseling to treat eating disorders, drug testing to treat addiction, and burdensome pre-certification requirements for mental health benefits.

DoL’s report is a reminder that discrimination on the basis of mental health related disabilities remains a part of the insurance business despite years of federal legislation to the contrary.

Court Ruling Illustrates The Limits ERISA Places On Insurers’ Discretion To Decide Claims

Many ERISA plans give the claims administrator (often an insurance company) discretionary authority to interpret the evidence and the terms of the employee benefit plan in deciding claims. This discretionary authority makes it difficult for claimants to overturn claim denials because court defer to decisions made using this authority.

But ERISA recognizes that claims administrators have an incentive to abuse this discretionary authority and limits it in important ways. Where the facts of a particular claim suggest the insurance company or other claims administrator is abusing its authority, courts are required to view the administrator’s handling of the claim with skepticism.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Gary v. Unum is a reminder of the importance that this skepticism has in ERISA disputes. Allison Gary had a medical condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). She had disability insurance through Unum as part of her employer’s benefit plan and made a claim. Unum denied her claim and she filed a lawsuit seeking benefits under ERISA.

The lower court sided with Unum and upheld the denial. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

The Ninth Circuit determined the lower court failed to properly scrutinize Unum’s evaluation of the medical evidence about Gary’s condition. The ERISA plan at issue gave Unum discretion to interpret this evidence. But the Ninth Circuit emphasized that, even where ERISA plan administrators have that discretion, it is checked by common-sense limitations that prevent insurers like Unum from denying claims out of self interest.

The Ninth Circuit held that the facts of Unum’s handling of the claim should have led the lower court to view Unum’s exercise of its discretionary authority to interpret the evidence with skepticism. First and foremost, the Ninth Circuit emphasized that an insurer who, like Unum, is responsible for paying disability claims as well as investigating the claimant’s entitlement to benefits has a perverse incentive to save itself money by looking for evidence to deny claims while ignoring evidence that would support paying benefits. The court emphasized this structural conflict of interest should have been considered.

Second, the appellate court was concerned by Unum’s practice of “cherry picking” certain observations from medical records, i.e., ignoring evidence of Allen’s disability while focusing on evidence that would support denying her claim.

Third, Unum failed to have Gary examined by an EDS specialist. Fourth, Unum cut off Gary’s benefits after exactly six months, an arbitrary measure that was disconnected from the medical evidence.

The Gary decision is unpublished, meaning it is not binding authority but may be relied on at the discretion of lower courts to the extent a judge believes the ruling is helpful.

Coronavirus Insurance Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing many types of insurance questions. Below is an FAQ on some insurance issues people may be dealing with during the pandemic. As always, it’s important to keep in mind that the specific facts and insurance policy language will vary from case to case. An FAQ can’t take the place of legal advice from consulting with an attorney directly. But hopefully this will help point you in the right direction.

Health Insurance

Typical health insurance covers COVID-19 treatment just the same as any other illness. Washington’s Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) exchange platform is allowing a special open enrollment period for qualified uninsured individuals to buy insurance on the state Exchange through April 8, 2020. This is an exception to the normal rule that you can only buy Exchange coverage during special periods.

There are also special rules for COVID-19 testing. The federal government designated COVID-19 testing as an essential health benefit, meaning that Medicaid and Medicare plans should cover testing. Washington’s Office of the Insurance Commissioner has ordered health insurers to cover COVID-19 testing without deductibles or cost-sharing. Also, insurers have to allow patients to refill necessary prescriptions regardless of the normal waiting periods.

Disability Insurance

Employees unable to work due to COVID-19 might have recourse under disability insurance policies.  Disability coverage should provide benefits for folks who can’t work because they are sick. But, as always, the fine print matters. Many policies have waiting periods or other detailed rules for paying benefits. The specific rules will also depend on how you obtained coverage. Most folks get disability insurance from their employer, and will have to navigate the special claims procedures under ERISA. For folks who bought their policies themselves, claims will be governed by Washington State law which is generally more policyholder-friendly.

Business Loss Insurance

Businesses who close or lose revenue because of the pandemic or the state-ordered lockdown might have claims for business interruption coverage. This coverage is often provided by standard commercial insurance policies. These claims depend heavily on the specific policy language and facts. For example, some policies require actual physical damage to property before paying business interruption benefits. Other policies might require the business be closed by the authorities. It is also important to be able to document the specific losses incurred under business interruption coverage.

Know Your Rights

Anyone who thinks they have insurance coverage related to COVID-19 should be on top of their rights. In disasters like this pandemic, insurers often cut corners or underpay claims. Washington State insurance policyholders have important rights, including the right to a full, fair, and prompt investigation of their claim at the insurer’s expense. Insurers also have a duty to fully disclose all the potential coverage that you might have.

Finally, here are some resources for non-insurance issues relating to the pandemic:

 

 

 

 

ERISA Insurer’s Hiding Doctor’s Opinions Results in Appellate Win for Claimant

On December 11, 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Washington and other coastal and western states) decided Wagenstein v. Cigna Life Insurance Company. The decision is unpublished, meaning it is not binding on lower courts but may still be used as persuasive authority.

Lea Wagenstein sued to challenge Cigna’s termination of her long-term disability benefits under an ERISA-governed insurance policy. The district court dismissed Wagenstein’s case, agreeing with Cigna’s decision to terminate benefits.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court. The court emphasized that even Cigna’s own consultant, hired to examine Wagenstein at Cigna’s behest, determined Wagenstein’s disability precluded her from sitting more than 2.5 hours per day. As such, the Ninth Circuit noted that report showed Wagenstein could not perform sedentary work requiring sitting for most of an 8 hour workday.

The Ninth Circuit noted Cigna possessed a report from another consultant, hired by Cigna, who determined Wagenstein could actually sit for a full workday and thus could perform two sedentary jobs. Cigna relied on this report in concluding Wagenstein was not disabled. But Cigna hid the report from Wagenstein until Cigna’s final denial of her appeal of the termination of her benefits. That deprived Wagenstein of the opportunity to provide a response from her treating physicians, who agreed Wagenstein was disabled. Failing to provide Wagenstein the report violated ERISA’s rules requiring full and fair review of claims.

Because Cigna violated ERISA by withholding its physician’s report, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case back to the lower court with instructions to allow Wagenstein to submit statements from her doctors rebutting Cigna’s consultant in determining whether Wagenstein remained entitled to disability insurance benefits.

The Wagenstein decision, while not binding precedent, remains an important reminder that, where the insurer relies on consultants’ opinions in denying claims or terminating benefits, ERISA protects the claimant’s right to rebut the insurer’s evidence.