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 The decision is unpublished, meaning it may be persuasive to lower courts but is not binding.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 of Appeals Clarifies Standard for Determining Exhaustion of Primary Insurance Coverage in Long-Term Losses

A recent Washington Court of Appeals decision helps clear up the obligations of excess insurers for losses occurring over many years when multiple insurance policies were in effect. Many businesses have two layers of insurance: “primary” insurance, which pays for losses up to a certain dollar amount, and then “excess” insurance, which kicks in if losses are so great that the primary insurance coverage amount is exhausted before the insured is fully compensated for the loss.

But what happens where the loss occurs over a decade during which the insured had multiple different primary and excess insurance policies–does the insured need to exhaust its primary coverage in each policy year in order to access the excess coverage?

The Court of Appeals’ August 23, 2021 ruling in Gull Industries v. Granite State Insurance Company answered that question “no”. This was a lawsuit brought by a gas station operator, Gull Industries, against multiple insurance companies seeking coverage for environmental contamination caused at 200 gas stations over 50 years. The spillage occurred gradually in the normal course of running the gas stations: customers spilled gas while filling their cars, supply trucks spilled gas while filling up storage tanks, and storage tanks gradually seeped gas into the ground. The company faced liability for the environmental contamination including lawsuits at 24 sites and regulatory action at 19 sites.

A main issue in the case was when and if Gull’s excess insurer, Granite State Insurance Company, had to start paying for the environmental contamination. That depended on when Granite State’s primary insurance was considered to have been exhausted. Gull argued this should be viewed for each policy year individually; in other words, as soon as one policy year’s worth of primary coverage was exhausted, Granite State’s excess obligation kicked in regardless of whether there was primary coverage in other policy years.

Granite State disagreed, claiming that its excess coverage was not in play until all of the first level coverage in every policy year of the many decades of contamination was exhausted. The trial court agreed with Granite State. Gull appealed.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court erred when it accepted Granite State’s argument that Gull had to exhaust its primary coverage in every year before Granite State had any excess insurance obligations. The court noted the absence of Washington State caselaw on this question. But it relied on a California Supreme Court ruling that decided the issue using the same rules of insurance policy interpretation applied in Washington State.

The California Supreme Court found that the most natural reading of similar insurance policy language means that the excess coverage kicks in whenever the primary coverage is exhausted in the same policy year, regardless of what happened in other coverage periods. The court also pointed out that requiring an insured to prove it exhausted primary coverage in multiple policy years creates unreasonable obstacles to an insured seeking coverage and undermine the insured’s reasonable expectations.

The Court of Appeals found this reasoning persuasive. It emphasized the importance of the reasonable expectations of the insured in interpreting insurance policies. It also noted that requiring the insured to prove it exhausted the primary limits of every policy period of a multi-decade loss would unreasonably require the insured to sue over coverage obligations of different primary policies that was not anticipated when it purchased the excess policy.

This ruling is a good reminder that Washington State courts will interpret insurance policies to give effect to reasonable expectations of coverage over impractical and overly technical readings of the policy fine print.

Washington State Insurance News Roundup: Credit Scores, Surprise Medical Billing, and Vaccines

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.

Bicyclists Covered Under Insurance Policies That Cover “Pedestrians” Says Washington Supreme Court

Technical terms in the fine print of an insurance policy are often critical to understanding the insured’s rights. These terms often have definitions that differ from the normal dictionary definition. In one case, for instance, a court ruled that school busses are not automobiles under a particular insurance policy. The recent ruling in McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Insurance Company is such a case.

In McLaughlin, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a bicyclist was a “pedestrian” under McLaughlin’s insurance policy. McLaughlin was riding his bicycle in downtown Seattle when a motorist opened the door of a parked vehicle and hit McLaughlin. McLaughlin made a claim under his Travelers car insurance policy. The policy provided benefits if McLaughlin was struck by a vehicle “as a pedestrian.”

Travelers denied coverage. It argued that McLaughlin was not a “pedestrian” because he was riding his bike. The lower courts agreed with Travelers, relying on the dictionary definition of “pedestrian” as excluding bicyclists.

The Washington State Supreme Court held that McLaughlin had coverage. The court relied on an insurance statute in which the Washington legislature defined a “pedestrian” as any person “not occupying a motor vehicle…” Since McLaughlin was riding a bike and not a motor vehicle when he was injured, he was a “pedestrian”.

The court emphasized that the relevant statutes are read into insurance contracts automatically. Because the legislature has the power to regulate insurance, a valid statute becomes part of the insurance policy. The statutory definition of “pedestrian” therefore became a part of McLaughlin’s insurance policy just as if Travelers had copied the statute into the policy documents.

This conclusion was reinforced by traditional insurance law principles that insurance policy language should be read consistent with the expectations of the average insurance purchaser. The court had no trouble concluding that the average person buying this MedPay coverage would expect to be covered when injured by a car.

Another twist is that the Court applied Washington law even though McLaughlin bought the policy in California. Because he had moved to Washington, the Court determined that he was entitled to all the protections of Washington law. Washington courts have a long history of applying Washington law to any insurance policy protecting a Washington resident.

In sum, the McLaughlin case is a strong reminder that Washington State’s insurance laws and regulations will be enforced regardless of the insurance policy fine print.