Washington State’s Office of the Insurance Commissioner (“OIC”) has had a busy March. The OIC, Washington State’s regulator responsible for overseeing insurance sold in Washington, issued several orders regarding discriminatory insurance pricing and the COVID pandemic.
First, the OIC banned insurers from using credit scores to price insurance. The insurance commissioner found the ban necessary to prevent discriminatory pricing in auto, renters, and homeowners insurance. Using credit scores to price insurance has been criticized as discriminatory because the practice results in low-income policyholders and people of color paying more for insurance. Auto insurance companies, for example, charge good drivers with low credit scores nearly 80% more for state-mandated auto coverage. This practice is anticipated to become even more egregious as COVID emergency protections expire this year, causing people who experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic to pay more for insurance merely because their credit scores have dropped. The insurance commissioner acted after legislation banning credit scores in insurance pricing failed to advance through the Washington State legislature.
Second, OIC extended certain emergency orders regarding COVID. These orders require health insurance companies to waive cost-sharing and protect consumers from surprise bills for COVID testing. The orders also require insurers to allow out-of-network providers to treat or test for COVID if the insurer lacks sufficient in-network providers. These orders were originally entered last year and are now extended to April 18, 2021. OIC also extended the requirement that insurers cover telehealth services.
Third, OIC responded to COVID vaccine misinformation. False reports have percolated that getting the COVID vaccine can void life insurance coverage or affect premiums or benefits. The OIC clarified that COVID vaccination will not harm your insurance eligibility.
Lastly, OIC gave an update on the effect of the American Rescue Plan Act on health insurance premiums for policies purchased on the Exchange (a/k/a “Obamacare” policies). OIC explained that the revisions in the new law reduces the percentage of income that people must pay for health coverage on an Exchange policy. The new law also increases subsidies for people receiving unemployment benefits and covers COBRA premiums for people who lost their job but want to keep their employer-sponsored coverage.
An industry group known as the Insurance Information Institute is analyzing the role racial bias plays in calculating insurance premiums. Explicit racial bias, i.e.., setting premiums directly based on race (known as “redlining”) has been illegal since the mid 20th century. But rates continue to bet set based on criteria that indirectly reflect racial bias. One study found persistent rate increases for homeowners’ insurance in minority neighborhoods that exceeded legitimate risk differentials.
Rate criteria reflecting implicit racial bias include credit scores and occupations. The insurance industry has long defended these criteria as reliable predictors of risk. But the new working group pushes back on those assumptions:
Research shows that average credit scores for white and Asian customers are better than those for Black and Hispanic customers…Insurance credit scores reflect and perpetuate historic racism and unfairly discriminate against Black and Hispanic communities.
Other facially neutral rate setting policies can have a discriminatory impact. Motor vehicle records (e.g., traffic tickets) can reflect systemic racism on the basis that affluent white drivers are better able to afford hiring lawyers to dismiss or downgrade citations.
The industry group is also investigating whether the use of computer algorithms to analyze so-called “big data” about drivers can reflect implicit racial bias. This mirrors concerns in other fields (e.g., facial recognition software) that computer programs inadvertently perpetuate existing biases.
This new report shows the insurance industry as a whole is following up on efforts from state regulators to limit discriminatory premium rates. New York’s Department of Financial Services recently prohibited using education and occupation to price car insurance. The rule only applies in New York. Hopefully this pushback will become more widespread as other groups take note.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Washington and other west coast states) is having a busy summer for insurance cases. On the heels of recent decisions regarding attorneys’ fees in ERISA-governed insurance disputes and insurers’ duty to reasonably investigate insurance claims comes the July 14, 2020 ruling in Schmitt v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Washington, holding health insurers cannot design health plans that have a discriminatory impact under the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a “Obamacare”).
For decades before the ACA, it was legal for health insurers to design health plan benefits however they chose, even if those plan designs had a discriminatory impact. As long as the insurer provided the same benefits to everyone, the insurer could decide what benefits to offer and what not to offer. Insureds could not sue their insurer for designing a health plan that had a discriminatory effect.
The Schmitt ruling confirms that the ACA changed that. Part of the ACA’s purpose is to expand so-called “minimum essential coverage” under health insurance policies. There are certain minimum benefits that must be included in most health plans. This includes, for instance, emergency services, maternity care, mental health treatment, and rehabilitative treatment.
Additionally, the ACA specifically provides that insurers cannot design health plans in a discriminatory manner. It states that an insurer may not “design benefits in ways that discriminate against individuals because of their…disability.”
The Schmitt ruling emphasizes that the ACA is different from prior federal laws that had been interpreted not to prohibit discriminatory plan design. Prior to the ACA, no federal law guaranteed any person adequate health care. The ACA, on the other hand, explicitly guarantees the right to minimum health insurance benefits and prohibits designing health plans that deprive people of those minimum benefits on a discriminatory basis.
The court noted the ACA does not require insurers cover all treatment no matter how costly or ineffective. But the court emphasized insurers cannot design health coverage that has a discriminatory impact.
The Schmitt ruling is an important victory for advocates of fair insurance coverage.
In Washington, and many other states, domestic partners enjoy the same rights and legal protections as spouses. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently confirmed that domestic partnerships’ equal treatment under state law extends to ERISA plans.
ERISA plans typically give the plan administrator broad discretion to interpret the terms of the plan. This often means the plan administrator has huge leeway in deciding who qualifies for benefits under the plan. If the plan document leaves any room for interpretation, courts often defer to the plan administrator’s decision about who gets benefits, even if the decision seems unfair or counter-intuitive.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Reed v. KRON/IBEW Local 45 Pension Plan ruled that ERISA plan administrators’ discretion does not extend to discriminating against domestic partners when deciding who qualifies for benefits under the plan.
In Reed, David Reed and Donald Gardner had been in a committed, long-term relationship for decades, ultimately becoming domestic partners. Gardner subsequently retired and began receiving pension benefits under the ERISA pension plan sponsored by his former employer KRON television. The KRON ERISA plan entitled the spouses of pensioners who passed away to surviving spouse benefits.
After Gardner passed away, Reed filed a claim for surviving spouse benefits. KRON’s plan administrator denied Reed’s claim. The plan administrator claimed it was within its discretion to interpret surviving spouses as excluding domestic partners.
The court acknowledged that ERISA plan administrators are entitled to broad discretion, but nevertheless ruled in Reed’s favor. The court noted state law “afforded domestic partners the same rights, protections, and benefits as those granted to spouses” and nothing in ERISA required otherwise. The Court ordered the ERISA plan to pay surviving spouse benefits to Reed.
The Reed case is an important reminder that ERISA plan administrators’ discretion is not unlimited, and also represents an important victory for domestic partners.