In Unprecedented Move, DOL Exercises Authority to Issue Cease and Desist Order Under Section 521 of ERISA, Shut Down Fiduciaries Accused of Misconduct, “Healthcare Madoff” Scheme
The U.S. Department of Labor obtained a Temporary Restraining Order in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangement (MEWA) service providers for allegedly failing to pay more than $26 million in member’s health bills while keeping a substantial amount of money for themselves, then siphoning off those funds to offshore Bermuda accounts. The court also ordered 2 banks to freeze 14 bank accounts that were alleged to have plan assets in them.
The court ordered Black Wolf Consulting, AEU Holdings and one of its subsidiaries removed and barred from serving as fiduciaries or service providers to the individual employer plans that participate in the AEU Holdings LLC Employee Benefit Plan, a Multiple Employer Welfare Arrangement (MEWA) established by the defendants.
The court’s order immediately appointed an independent fiduciary to oversee the MEWA’s operations, marshal and control the assets of the MEWA as it relates to the underlying participant plans, perform an accounting of the MEWA’s financial position, and determine the MEWA’s ability to pay outstanding participant health claims, according to the DOL.
The order comes on the heels of the DOL lawsuit filed on November 2, 2017 seeking declaratory and injunctive relief including a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to remove the fiduciaries. The Complaint also alleges multiple violations of ERISA including, using plan assets to pay excessive fees and expenses, assessing undisclosed fees to the contribution amounts, failing or refusing to pay approximately $16 million for member’s medical claims, then transferring unpaid monies to offshore bank accounts in Bermuda.
Black Wolf kept anywhere from 17 to 44 percent of the money employers and employees paid toward premiums, according to the DOL complaint.
At its height, the MEWA covered approximately 14,000 participants and beneficiaries. These participants worked for more than 560 employers in 36 different states. However the increased backlog of unpaid claims created significant problems for many members as doctors refused treatments because of unpaid bills and many members were sent to collections accounts, according to the DOL.
Additionally, the DOL issued a cease and desist order that prevents sub-brokers and aggregators working on behalf of the MEWA from marketing it to prospective employers or from enrolling new employers. The Secretary has the authority to issue an ex parte cease and desist order pursuant to ERISA § 521(a), 29 U.S.C. § 1151(a), and its implementing regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 2560.521-1. This authority applies only to a MEWA, and the cease and desist order may be issued whenever the Secretary finds reasonable cause to believe, among other things, that the respondent(s) engaged in conduct that creates an immediate danger to public safety or welfare within the meaning of § 2560.521-1(b)(3). 29 C.F.R. § 2560.521-1(c)(1)(i)(B).
According to the DOL Memorandum:
“Over $15 million in processed claims from 2016 and over $11 million in processed claims for 2017 remain unpaid. During the same time period as these claims have gone unpaid, AEU and Black Wolf have enriched themselves substantially by paying themselves and other entities millions of dollars in “fees.” Meanwhile, hundreds of unsuspecting employers have joined the AEU Plan to provide affordable medical benefits for their employees, only to have their employees be saddled with thousands of dollars in unpaid medical claims-some facing escalating collections actions and others unable to obtain life-saving treatment.“
The Memorandum goes on to point out:
“This results in thousands of participants incurring additional medical claims that will never be paid. Current and former participants report being turned away by their doctors because claims have gone unpaid. They have had to forego life-saving treatments for cancer and other illnesses. Parents who have just given birth are saddled with unanticipated medical claims at the same time they are trying to care for their newborn children. Collections agencies are calling and knocking at their doors. Many fear for their family’s future financial security. Despite the over $26 million in current unpaid claims and the harm facing these participants, Defendants continue to seek out new, unsuspecting employers to feed what is to them, a very profitable enterprise.”
Original DOL Press Release
These new ERISA embezzlement cases are part of a growing trend consistent with the court’s Hi-Lex decisions and as well as other cases we have written about before.
This lawsuit in particular should serve as a warning and wake up call for all Plan Administrators to continually monitor their TPAs in accordance with the Plan Administrator’s statutory fiduciary duties and to discharge its duties with respect to a plan solely in the interest of the participants for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them.
For over 7 years, Avym Corp. has advocated for ERISA plan assets audit and embezzlement recovery education and consulting. With new Supreme Court guidance on ERISA anti-fraud protection, we are ready to assist all self-insured plans recover billions of dollars of self-insured plan assets, 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.