Another Federal Court Rules Against Cigna In Alleged Fee Forgiving/Overpayment Recoupment Dispute With Medical Provider- Court “Bars” Cigna From Relying On “Legally Incorrect” Interpretation of ERISA Plans
On March 10, 2017 in the US District Court of Connecticut, Judge Alfred V. Covello ruled in favor of surgical center defendants and against Cigna, barring Cigna from recouping self-insured plan assets based on alleged “overpayments” which were predicated on Cigna’s “legally incorrect” interpretation of ERISA plans “exclusionary language”.
This decision offers clear guidance on critical issues such as cross-plan offsetting, Cigna’s fee forgiveness protocol, SIU practices and ERISA disclosure requirements, confirming the profound shift in Out-of-Network benefits and claim processing for all health care providers and health plans in the nation.
The decision also further unwinds the payor initiated “out-of-network fraud” enigma as we have written about before, and is one of a series of critical court decisions which address the typical scenario for out-of-network providers: payors refusal to pay claims which leads to “catch-all” out-of-network lawsuits seeking total overpayment refunds of claims previously paid to providers, all based on broad and vague allegations of fraud.
The case revolves around Cigna’s fee forgiving protocol, whereby Cigna denies medical claims if its members don’t pay their entire out of pocket cost up front. Based on this premise, Cigna is also seeking recovery of approximately $17 million in alleged “overpayments” made to providers that did not collect the full patient out of pocket liability up front.
Court case info: Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. et al. v. True View Surgery Center One, LP et al. Case No.:3:14-cv-01859-AVC; US District Court Connecticut
In what may have been the impetus for a litigation tsunami, where over 100 Cigna administered health plans were sued for various ERISA violations including embezzlement, issuing “secret checks” and self-dealing, Cigna filed suit on 12/11/2014 against True View Surgery Center One and affiliated health care providers seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under ERISA and essentially asking the court to declare that “no coverage is due” where medical providers “do not enforce the plans’ cost-share requirements”. Cigna also asked the court to order defendant medical providers to “submit to Cigna only claims containing charges that Defendants actually charge the plan member as payment in full”. In other words, no medical coverage is available if the member does not pay their entire out of pocket liabilities up front.
Cigna was also seeking the return of any benefit payments, as “overpayments” made to the medical provider where the member did not pay their entire out of pocket liability up front, specifically requesting the court to impose a “constructive trust on monies currently held by Defendants as a result of the overpayments made by Cigna…pursuant to an equitable lien”.
Out of network provider True View Surgery Center One, argued that the issues were already resolved in a previous case litigated in Texas, and that Cigna was attempting to take multiple bites out of the same apple in order to wrongfully deny legitimate medical claims.
The court focused on two main issues: 1) whether Cigna is barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel from pursuing their claims on behalf of ERISA plans; and 2) whether Cigna has adequately alleged traceability in order to recover alleged “overpayments”
Ultimately, the court agreed with defendant True View Surgery Center One and ruled “Cigna is barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel” in its attempt to have the courts validate its fee forgiving protocols, and in its attempts to recover alleged “overpayments”
In his decision, Judge Covello cited the Humble case (Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. et al. v. Humble Surgical Hospital, LLC, Case number 4:13-cv-03291) where Cigna was slammed with a $17 million penalty and opined that the district court in Texas had already “addressed the issue” regarding Cigna’s fee forgiving protocols.
In citing the Humble case, the judge said “In Humble, the court held that Cigna’s interpretation of this “exclusionary” language was “legally incorrect,” and that “ERISA does not permit the interpretation embraced by Cigna.”
The judge went on to say that the Texas court found “because ‘[t]he average plan participant would not understand from the exclusionary language…that his/her coverage is expressly conditioned on whether Humble collects upfront, the entirety of his/her deductible, co-pay and co-insurance before Cigna pays,’ Cigna’s “exclusionary” language interpretation does not pass muster under the “average plan participant” test,” which ERISA requires.”.
The judge ultimately holds: “Cigna is relying on the interpretation of its ERISA plans that the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas held to be ‘legally incorrect’ in order to effectively deny providers’ benefit claims. Therefore, the doctrine of collateral estoppel bars Cigna from relitigating those [issues].”
As part of Judge Covello’s ruling on Cigna’s lack of traceability, in dismissing Cigna’s claim for “overpayments”, we must again look to the Humble case for clarification. According to the Humble court:
“Cigna is not entitled to equitable restitution of any alleged overpayments based on the “tracing” method, as it cannot identify any specific res separate and apart from Humble’s general assets. See Health Special Risk, 756 F.3d at 366 (reasoning that “Sereboff did not move away from any tracing requirement; it distinguished between equitable liens by agreement—which do not require tracing—and equitable liens by restitution—which do.”). As the Court explained in Knudson, the basis for petitioners’ claim is “that petitioners are contractually entitled to some funds for benefits that they conferred. The kind of restitution that petitioners seek, therefore, is not equitable…but legal—the imposition of personal liability for the benefits that they conferred upon respondents.”Knudson, 534 U.S. at 214.”
All Out-of-Network providers and self-insured health plans should understand the implications of the court’s rulings in order to protect members and beneficiaries from inappropriate medical debt and bankruptcy and to safeguard and protect self-insured health plan assets from possible conversion, abstraction or “hidden fees”. Education and understanding of these concepts will bring peace, harmony and compliance to the healthcare industry, especially when health plans are determined to contain healthcare costs and healthcare providers are dedicated to providing all patients with high quality, affordable healthcare when exercising their freedom of choice and right to seek out-of-network care.
For over 7 years, Avym Corp. has advocated for ERISA plan assets audit and embezzlement recovery education and consulting. Now with the Supreme Court’s guidance on ERISA anti-fraud protection, we are ready to assist all medical providers and self-insured plans recover billions of dollars on behalf of hard-working Americans. To find out more about Avym Corporation’s Fiduciary Overpayment Recovery Specialist (FOR) and Fiduciary Overpayment Recovery Contractor (FORC) programs click here.