Department of Labor Sues United Healthcare for Violating ERISA and Mental Health Parity Law

The federal Department of Labor (DoL) has sued UnitedHealthCare for alleged discrimination against patients seeking mental health treatment. DoL contends that UnitedHealthCare, one of the country’s largest health insurers, systematically imposes illegal limitations on coverage for mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment. The August 11, 2021 lawsuit alleges these practices violate ERISA. DoL also asserts UnitedHealthCare is violating the Mental Health Parity Act, a federal law prohibiting discrimination against people with mental health conditions:

Basically, DoL alleges UnitedHealthCare did this in two different ways: (1) paying less for out-of-network mental health treatment than it pays for out-of-network medical and surgical care; and (2) singling out mental health treatment for a special “review program” that limited these benefits in a way that was not applied to similar non-mental health treatment. This is alleged to have happened as far back as 2013.

This isn’t the first time UnitedHealthCare has found itself in court over mental health coverage. A prior lawsuit by made similar allegations, resulting in a ruling that the insurance company had illegally discriminated against mental health patients through secret internal guidelines making it harder to access mental health treatment in order to boost corporate profits.

But the fact that these practices have drawn the ire of federal regulators is significant. DoL is charged with enforcing violations of ERISA. But most federal regulators lack the resources to pursue any but the worst and most systemic violations. DoL’s choice to pursue this particular suit suggests the agency considers these practices to be especially egregious, particularly given the company has already been sued by private insureds.

Hopefully, this signals a pattern of more proactive ERISA enforcement by regulators.