Blue Cross Michigan Hit With Flurry of ERISA Lawsuits

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By Jacklyn Wille

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has been sued more than 30 times in the past week by employers that say the insurer skimmed unauthorized fees from their health plans.

The lawsuits, filed between Aug. 9 and 11 in federal court in Michigan, accuse Blue Cross of charging hidden and unauthorized fees to the employers’ health plan assets as a means of improving its financial position without alienating customers. The lawsuits build from a 2014 appeals court decision holding Blue Cross liable for this conduct under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and upholding a $6 million judgment against the insurer.

Since that 2014 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, more than 200 ERISA cases have accused Blue Cross of charging hidden health plan fees. Two Michigan-based law firms are spearheading this recent flurry of lawsuits: Varnum LLP and Michigan Health Lawyers. The employers suing Blue Cross include a car dealer, a plastics manufacturer, an auto parts maker, and acollege, among others.

Bloomberg Law®, an integrated legal research and business intelligence solution, combines trusted news and analysis with cutting-edge technology to provide legal professionals tools to be proactive advisors.

This recent spate of lawsuits is partly in response to a deadline identified by a district court, Aaron Phelps, a partner with Varnum LLP in Grand Rapids, Mich., who filed several of the recent lawsuits, told Bloomberg BNA. That court held that lawsuits based on this purported scheme would be timely “until at least” Aug. 12 of this year, Phelps said.

Even so, Phelps said he didn’t believe the statute of limitations has expired on these claims. He said his firm, which has represented more than 200 businesses bringing claims against Blue Cross, would “continue to recover the fraudulent overcharges into the future.”

Blue Cross’ conduct affected “hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses,” Phelps added.

Blue Cross didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Many of these newer lawsuits claim to be “nearly identical” to the allegations found to be valid by the Sixth Circuit and other courts. Specifically, the insurer is accused of adopting a scheme to improve its financial position by adding surcharges to the fees it charged health plans. When these surcharges proved unpopular and caused the insurer to lose customers in the late 1980s, Blue Cross in 1993 replaced the disclosed fees with hidden markups no longer visible to customers, the lawsuits claim.

In allowing lawsuits to proceed against Blue Cross many years after the fees were issued and capable of being discovered, the Sixth Circuit said that the insurer’s acts of concealment warranted extending the relevant statute of limitations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacklyn Wille in Washington atjwille@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer atjmeyer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Self-Insured Health Plan TPA MagnaCare to Return $14.5 Million for ERISA Violations

Third Party Administrator, MagnaCare to return $14.5 million to Health Plan Clients after getting sued in federal court, alleging “MagnaCare breached its fiduciary duties and committed prohibited transactions, including dealing with plan assets in its own interest.

In a case we have written about before and as part of a greater, ongoing slew of self-insured health plans suing their third party administrators, MagnaCare, agreed to return $14.5 million to its health plan clients, as part of a settlement agreement with the US Department of Labor (DOL) – with possible additional payments of $4.5 million based upon business volume through 2019.  This agreement comes on the heels of the DOL lawsuit, filed in 2016, alleging multiple violations of ERISA, including committing prohibited transactions and acting in its own interest with plan assets, among other violations.

According to the DOL and court records:

MagnaCare charged fees that were not disclosed to its ERISA plan clients…The plans paid MagnaCare the full amount, yet MagnaCare remitted the lower charges to the providers and retained the undisclosed markup

This case is just the tip of the national healthcare crisis iceberg. Recent reports have indicated most employers, particularly large employers will continue to offer health insurance as a benefit, in spite of the fact self-insured health plans are spending more on health benefits. Additionally, while self-insuring is common among large employers, an increasing number of smaller employers are self-insuring as well. Based on these facts, and with an increasing number of patients forced into bankruptcy due to unpaid medical bills, employer plans, medical providers and patients need to understand the implication of this case and others like it.

It’s a well-known fact from federal court documents and in healthcare industry news reports, that Billion$ of ERISA plan claims payments from self-insured plans may have been recouped or offset by self-insured plan TPA’s for the TPA’s fully-insured accounts. Additionally, many Billion$ more may have been similarly siphoned off based on “Fake PPO” discounts or  Phantom “Savings” fees.

DOL Case info and copy of “Complaint”: Acosta v. MagnaCare Administrative Services, LLC and MagnaCare LLC Civil Action No.:  1:16-cv-07695-DAB

Copy of “Consent Order”: United States DOL v. Magnacare Administrative Servcies, LLC and Magnacare, LLC-Consent Order

The court documents also contain allegations that MagnaCare actually siphoned off money that was supposed to go towards the payment for medical claims:

At times relevant to this Complaint, MagnaCare acted in own interest when it kept the difference between the Plan Charges and the Provider Rates as additional compensation without disclosing the amounts to the Plans.”

According to court records, MagnaCare LLC, and MagnaCare Administrative Services, LLC (MagnaCare) is a third party administrator of health plans or TPA, and provides administrative and claim adjudication services as well as “Network Access” services which purportedly enables its clients to obtain healthcare from providers at discounted rates.  

This case was undoubtedly spurred on by a previous lawsuit against MagnaCare, by its own self-insured plan client. In that case, the plaintiff alleged:

“MagnaCare represented to Plaintiffs in a written contract between the parties that providers of diagnostic laboratory and ancillary services had “accepted” a “fee schedule” which included a “management fee” for MagnaCare. In fact, the providers had never “accepted’ a fee schedule containing a “management foe” for MagnaCare. Rather, the providers had agreed to a fee schedule, which was a fraction of the amounts collected by MagnaCare from Plaintiffs. MagnaCare – without disclosure to Plaintiffs or the providers – simply misappropriated the difference between what Plaintiffs paid MagnaCare and what MagnaCare negotiated to pay the providers.” 

Court case info: UNITED TEAMSTER FUND, et al v. Magnacare Administrative Services, LLC et al, Case 1:13-CV-06062-WHP-FM, First Amended Complaint (FAC), filed on Oct. 29, 2015, original Complaint, filed on august 27, 2013,  in United States District Court Southern District Of New York.

These lawsuits come on the heels of the Oct. 20, 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision to deny all appeals on a BCBSM’s $6.1 million fraud judgment for a self-insured ERISA plan by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Six Circuit, upholding the decision by the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. On May 14, 2014, the federal appeals court (Sixth Cir. 2014) upheld the district court’s $6.1 million decision for Hi-Lexa self-insured ERISA plan, against BCBSM for violating ERISA in prohibited transactions and fiduciary fraud, according to court documents.

Hi-Lex Controls, Inc. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan(SC Case #. 14-168, 6th Cir. Case #: 13-1773, 13-1859).

These cases together with the ERISA case listed below, offer insight into the healthcare industry’s prevalent overpayment offset wars:  

Peterson, D.C. et al v. UnitedHealth Group Inc. et al, U.S. District Court, U.S. District of Minnesota (DMN) CIVIL DOCKET FOR CASE #: 0:14-cv-02101-PJS-BRT

These new ERISA embezzlement cases are part of a growing trend consistent with the court’s Hi-Lex decisions.

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.

 

Federal Judge Certifies Class Against ILWU-PMA Welfare Plan in Lawsuit Alleging ERISA Violations

**UPDATE**

On August 1, 2017 US District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald issued an order granting class certification against ILWU-PMA Welfare Plan and its third party administrator, Zenith American Solutions, for breach of fiduciary duty.

According to court records;

“Plaintiffs’ claims seeking removal of the Plan’s fiduciaries raise issues that apply generally to the class, and thus a class can be certified under Rule 23(b)(1).’

As part of his rationale for certifying class, the judge explained, “Because the underlying issue does not turn on the approval or denial of any given claim for benefits, but rather on Defendants’ course of conduct as a whole, the issues discussed above do not preclude class certification on the fiduciary claims.

ILWU-PMA and Zenith argued class should be denied because the plaintiffs failed to exhaust the administrative remedy, but the court disagreed, “Defendants contend that typicality and adequacy of representation are not met because Lead Plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. But exhaustion is not required for claims alleging a breach of fiduciary duty. Spinedex Physical Therapy USA Inc. v. United Healthcare of Arizona, Inc., 770 F.3d1282, 1294 (9th Cir. 2014). Accordingly, exhaustion is no bar to certifying the class, and the requirements of Rule 23(a) are met.

ILWU-PMA and Zenith next argued class should be denied because the proposed class is not “cohesive” and therefore presents very little risk of “inconsistent judgments” going forward. However the court again disagreed, “The relief requested, however, would benefit all Plan members in the same way, and thus the class is sufficiently cohesive.”

“Moreover, the risk of inconsistent judgments is apparent from the face of the claim: If each of the four Lead Plaintiffs brought individual actions seeking removal of Zenith and the PMA Trustees in four separate courts, and half were granted the requested injunctive relief while the other half were not, the Plan would be required both to remove and not to remove Zenith and the PMA Trustees.

Ultimately, this ruling should serve as a wake-up call to all Plan Administrators and Fiduciaries, to ensure any and all TPAs are acting in the best interest of the members and their beneficiaries. Thus avoiding costly litigation and possible penalties.

In the case, which we have written about before, plaintiffs sued the International Longshore Workers Union-Pacific Maritime Association Welfare Plan, (ILWU-PMA) and its third party administrator, Zenith American Solutions (Zenith) for failing to properly administer and pay benefit entitlements to the employees of ILWU and their beneficiaries. The suit also named Pacific Maritime Association trustees, who manage the plan, individually, saying that they were not acting in the best interest of employees.

Case Info: Amijo et al v. ILWU-PMA Coastwise et al U.S. District Court for the Central District of CA (Western Division- Los Angeles) Civil Docket for Case #: 2:15-cv-1403, Filed 02/26/2015.

The original complaint alleged Zenith, and its agent TC3, failed to properly process member medical claims leading to many claims going unpaid, and members having to foot the medical bills out of pocket. According to the complaint: 

“the backlog of unpaid medical bills increased dramatically in early 2013. According to the Interim Report, by the summer of 2013, there were 286,000 unprocessed claims from the Cigna era, and there were also growing numbers of unprocessed claims from the Zenith era.’

After an arbitrators hearing, Zenith assured the ILWU employees their claims would be processed and paid in a timely manner, but that did not happen, and in fact the backlog grew even worse, according to court records,

“Although Zenith promised [it] would, put in place mechanisms to address the backlog of unpaid medical bills, in the latter half of 2013 the backlog became worse, with about 90,000 new claims each month.”

Ultimately, the members sued the plan in a class action, seeking benefits and the removal of the fiduciaries for failing to monitor administration of the Plan. The suit also alleged Zenith and the PMA Trustees’ breach of their fiduciary duty harmed the Plan as a whole by, among other things, causing doctors to stop providing services the the employees and their beneficiaries.

 

HHS OIG Work Plan 2017

OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL- U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services FY 2017-Work-Plan -The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG)
Work Plan for fiscal year (FY) 2017 summarizes new and ongoing reviews and activities that OIG plans to pursue with respect to HHS programs and operations during the current fiscal year and beyond

HHS OIG Work Plan 2017

 

 

 

BCBSM Slapped With $8.4M Judgement For “Hidden Fees”

Federal Judge rules that Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan has to repay $8.4 million for violating ERISA and charging “Hidden Fees” to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

On July 14, 2017 U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington ruled Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) had to repay the Tribe $8.4 million for charging “hidden fees” in violation of ERISA. According to court records, the Tribe had two separate plans under BCBSM. The Tribe claimed that BCBSM charged $8,426,278 for Group 1 and $5,035,145 for Group 2. However the court ruled one of the plans was not an ERISA plan, and therefore, BCBSM was not liable for those fees.

 The judge summarized the issues by providing the following backdrop:

“BCBSM had ‘complete discretion to determine the amount of the Disputed Fees, as well as which of its customers paid them.’ As a result of the hidden nature of the fees, the savings from using BCBSM as an administrator appeared greater to customers that they truly were.”

According to the court:

It is undisputed, that, like in the multitude of other similar cases that have been brought against BCBSM, the company included hidden administrative fees in its charges to the Tribe. BCBSM agrees that, between 2004 and 2012, the tribe paid approximately $13 million in hidden administrative fees

Case info: Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, et al v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, No. 1:16-cv-10317, E.D. Mich., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109366 

The “multitude of other similar cases” that have been brought against BCBSM, stem from more than 50 other similar cases in the same court. The decisive point for all these cases was the Hi-Lex case, where the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $6.1 million judgement against BCBSM for, you guessed it, charging clients hidden fees!

The Six Circuit Opinion: “SILER, Circuit Judge. The Hi-Lex corporation, on behalf of itself and the Hi-Lex Health & Welfare Plan, filed suit in 2011 alleging that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) breached its fiduciary duty under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) by inflating hospital claims with hidden surcharges in order to retain additional administrative compensation. The district court granted summary judgment to Hi-Lex on the issue of whether BCBSM functioned as an ERISA fiduciary and whether BCBSM’s actions amounted to self-dealing. A bench trial followed in which the district court found that Hi-Lex’s claims were not time-barred and that BCBSM had violated ERISA’s general fiduciary obligations under 29 U.S.C. § 1104(a). The district court also awarded pre- and post-judgment interest. We AFFIRM.” according to the Sixth Circuit Court document.

“according to BCBSM’s own survey of its self-insured customers, a substantial majority – 83% – did not know the Disputed Fees were being charged.”, according to the Sixth Circuit Court document.

As more and more of these cases make their way through the courts, self-insured health plan administrators charged with properly monitoring and safeguarding plan assets should do so, independent of their TPA’s own reporting. Additionally, as a result of this and other cases, including the Supreme Court’s decision to deny the BCBSM challenge of the Sixth Circuit Court decision, these same self-insured health plan administrators, should seek return of Billions in plan assets.

In the healthcare provider arena the No. 1 health care claim denial in the country today is the overpayment recoupment and claims-offset.  Correspondingly, for self-insured health plans, the No. 1 hidden cost is overpayment recoupment and plan assets embezzlement. The immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision could be billions of dollars for all self-insured ERISA health plans nationwide, as a result of the TPA industry’s potential recovery of a billion dollars in overpayment recoupments and anti-fraud campaigns over the past 12 years.

For over 8 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 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.

 

UHC “Overpayment” Offset Practice Dealt Deathblow-ERISA Court Rules Cross-Plan Offset Constitutes “Grave Conflict Of Interest”

In Landmark Class Action Case, a Federal Judge would shut down United HealthCare’s “cross-plan offsetting” practice as a “troubling use of plan assets”, ruling the industry standard practice of “Cross‐plan offsetting creates a substantial and ongoing conflict of interest” for all claims administrators who “simultaneously administer both self‐insured and fully insured plans.” The court also called into question United’s practice of reaching “into the pockets of the sponsors of self‐insured plans” and putting that money “in United’s pocket”.

In an extraordinary decision, US District Judge Patrick J. Schultz has effectively barred cross-plan offsets. The judge weighed in on two very important questions: First, whether UHC acted “reasonably” in interpreting its client’s plans to permit cross‐plan offsetting; and whether the practice complies with the “fiduciary duties imposed by ERISA”. The court offered an answer to both issues while providing very clear guidance for Plans, claims administrators, medical providers and patients.

As we have written about many times before, the No. 1 health care claims denial in the country is “overpayment” recoupments through “Cross-Plan Offsets”; correspondingly, the No.1 hidden cost for Self-Insured health plans, is “Overpayment” recoupment through “Cross-Plan Offsets” and subsequent embezzlement of plan assets. With the new legal guidance this landmark case provides, will self-insured plan sponsors, like AT&T and Gap Inc. be held accountable to allowing United to engage in such ERISA violations such as embezzlement, self-dealing and breach of fiduciary duty?  

The court case info: Peterson DC et al v. UnitedHealth Group Inc. et al, U.S. District Court U.S. District of Minnesota (DMN), Civil Docket For Case #: 0:14-cv-02101-PJS-BRT, Filed 06/23/14

In this class-action, originally filed in 2014, healthcare providers alleged ERISA violations by UnitedHealthcare Group for withholding and offsetting newly adjudicated claim payments from one patient to satisfy an alleged overpayment in the past, from separate, unidentified patients in complete violation of ERISA, and even worse, by misrepresenting to the patients and the plan sponsors on patient EOB’s “payment made to provider”, when in truth and in fact no such payment was ever made to the providers, according to the Court Complaint.

In answering the first question, Judge Schultz considered whether the language in UHC’s client health plans at issue in the case, identified as 46 Plan Bs, authorized UHC to engage in the offsetting practice known as “Cross-Plan Offsets”. According to the court they did not: “the Court finds that United’s interpretation is unreasonable. The plans themselves do not authorize cross‐plan offsetting. To the contrary, most of the plans contain specific overpayment and recovery language that would be rendered meaningless if United was authorized by the generic clauses that it relies upon to engage in cross‐plan offsetting.”

The court went on to clarify: “Every one of the overpayment provisions is triggered only when the plan itself makes an overpayment…In other words, each Plan B authorizes the recovery of overpayments made by the Plan B.

“None of the overpayment…provisions contain any language allowing other plans to recover their overpayments from the plan. “In other words, not one Plan B authorizes recovery of an overpayment made by a Plan A.”, according to the court order.

Remarkably, the judge chided UHC for or creating its cross-plan offsetting process for its own benefit and without examining the language of the plans. The judge specifically drew attention to this point, according to the court order: “It should be noted, that in looking carefully at the language of the plans…the Court is doing something that United itself did not do before implementing cross-plan offsetting…”

“Only after getting sued did United hunt through the plans for any language that might provide a post hoc justification for its conduct…United admits that it was not able to find a single provision of a single plan that explicitly authorizes cross-plan offsetting.”, according to court records.

The judge also questioned whether UHC ever disclosed their intention to engage in “cross-plan offsets” or the likely conflict of interest to its plan clients: “It appears, however, that disclosures concerning United’s system of cross-plan offsetting are mostly or entirely handled by United’s banking team during what appear to be fairly technical explanations for banking, account-setup and account-funding processes. It also appears that such disclosures mostly occur orally and on a somewhat ad hoc basis”.

UHC argued that it did disclose its cross-plan offset provisions to its clients’ “benefits and finance and treasury folks”, to which the court responded “it is not clear whether those individuals have authority to make plan-wide fiduciary decisions, nor is it clear whether these disclosures are made before or after a plan sponsor decides to become a United Client.”

Regarding the second question, whether the practice of cross-plan offsetting violates ERISA, the judge, while weighing possible conflicts of interest in violation of ERISA, went so far as to mention the fact that UHC lined its own pockets with self-insured plan assets: “the money that reimburses United for its alleged overpayment comes out of the plan sponsors’ pockets. Several internal United documents emphasize this point and gush about how cross-plan offsetting will allow United to take money for itself out of the pockets of the self-insured plans…”

“In other words, every one of the cross‐plan offsets at issue in this litigation put money in United’s pocket, and most of that money came out of the pockets of the sponsors of self‐insured plans.” according to the court records.

The court went into great detail regarding UHC’s conflict and possible prohibited transaction and breach of fiduciary duty: “In light of this case law and the strict fiduciary duties imposed by ERISA, cross-plan offsetting is, to put it mildly, a troubling use of plan assets—one that is plainly in tension with “the substantive or procedural requirements of the ERISA statute . . . In stark terms, cross‐plan offsetting involves using assets from one plan to satisfy debt allegedly owed to a separate plan—a practice that raises obvious concerns under §§ 1104 and 1106. These concerns are particularly acute in this case, in which every offset that United orchestrated did not just benefit a different, unrelated plan, but benefited United itself.”

“Cross‐plan offsetting creates a substantial and ongoing conflict of interest for claims administrators who, like United, simultaneously administer both self‐insured and fully insured plans…”, according to court records.

The judge, after examining the facts of the case, shed light on an enormous incentive for UHC: “As the single biggest payor of claims, United’s personal stake in cross‐plan offsetting dwarfs that of any self‐insured plan. [United] in this circumstance has every incentive to be aggressive about looking for overpayments from its own fully insured plans (which overpayments can be recovered from self‐insured plans) and less aggressive about looking for overpayments from self‐insured plans (which overpayments might be recovered from fully insured plans).”

“And indeed, this incentive is reflected in United’s internal documents, which enthusiastically describe how cross‐plan offsetting will permit United to reach into the pockets of the sponsors of self‐insured plans to recover the overpayments that United makes in connection with fully insured plans.” (emphasis added) 

The court further clarifies its reasoning and confirms: “It is also undoubtedly true, as United is reluctant to acknowledge, that cross-pan offsetting can harm plan participants” and “It is not fairly debatable, however, that the type of cross‐plan offsetting challenged in this case—that is, cross-plan offsetting engaged in by an administrator who insures some (but not all) of the plans—presents a grave conflict of interest.”

Ultimately, the court concludes, “United labors under a continuing conflict of interest in administering the cross‐plan offset system because United fully insures some but not all of the plans. More importantly, the fact remains that cross‐plan offsetting is in tension with ERISA’s fiduciary rules, is not provided for in the plans, and is at odds with the specific offset language contained in most of the plans. As a result, United did not act reasonably in interpreting the Plan [documents] that are at issue in this case to permit cross‐plan offsetting. The Court therefore grants plaintiffs’ motions for partial summary judgment and denies United’s motions for full summary judgment.”

In ruling against UHC on almost every argument, the judge certified the case for immediate appeal, acknowledging that this was a landscape changing and “exceptional case,” and taking into consideration that United, as the nation’s largest insurer will have to “undertake the extremely expensive and disruptive process if unwinding its cross-plan offsetting practice.”

“This order resolves a controlling and dispositive question of law: whether United acted reasonably in interpreting the plans to permit cross‐plan offsetting.”

“IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:

  1. Defendants’ motions for summary judgment are DENIED.
  2. Plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment on Phase I issues are GRANTED.”

Based on the fact that ‘cross-plan offsetting” is pervasive throughout the health care industry, this legal guidance will undoubtedly have tremendous ramifications on all Plans, TPAs, medical providers and patients. Medical providers must be proactive and adopt compliant practices and policies. Health plans must also be proactive in validating that plan assets get returned to their plan, and not applied to cover shortfalls in another plan.

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 contact us.

Boomerang Effect Part II-Federal Court “Bars” Cigna From Recouping Self-Insured Plan Assets

Boomerang comes back to hit Cigna

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.

DOL-OIG-EBSA SHOWS PATH OUT OF FOREST FOR PATIENTS, PLANS & SERVICE PROVIDERS

EBSA Offers Guidance For Denied Health Care Benefit Claims After OIG Reports EBSA Did Not Have the Ability to Protect the Estimated 79 Million Plan Participants in Self-Insured Health Plans from Improper Denials of Health Claims

On November 18, 2016 the Labor Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Office released an audit conducted in order to assess the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s (EBSA) ability to protect the estimated 79 million plan participants of self-insured health benefits from improper claim denials, concluding that the EBSA did not have the ability to protect plan participants from improper health care claim denials.

As we have written about many times in the past, improper denials of health benefit claims can have catastrophic effects on the health and financial security of all health plan participants and their families.  Improper or wrongful health claims denials not only impact plan participants directly but also adversely affect health plan and their plan administrators. As more and more health plans are caught up defending questionable claims processing tactics, resulting in costly litigation expenses.

According to the OIG audit, the EBSA is charged with regulating all Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) self-insured health plans and is therefore responsible for protecting the estimated 79 million members in those plans against improper health claims denials.  

The EBSA issued clear guidance to patients, self-insured health plan and service providers through its comprehensive response to the September 1, 2016 OIG draft audit report. The EBSA reiterated its obligation to administer and enforce fiduciary, reporting and disclosure provisions of Title I of the Employee Income Retirement Security Act, of 1974 (ERISA), through its own enforcement program and education and outreach programs.

The EBSA enforcement program seeks to detect and correct violations that result in monetary recoveries for employee benefits plans, participants and beneficiaries, and to obtain corrective remedies, including but not limited to, broad-based reforms for large plans or common service providers (i.e. TPA’s). The EBSA also works to inform the public with regard to benefits issues so plan participants have access to information about their rights and responsibilities under their respective plans. This allows plan participants and their beneficiaries the chance to obtain any necessary plan corrections before serious financial damage is done. The EBSA’s education programs also target plan sponsors and other plan officials, service providers and plan participants to inform them of their rights and responsibilities under ERISA.  

The EBSA response outlines the steps it has taken in the past and also offers guidance to all stakeholders when confronted with possible improper health claim denials. According to the EBSA, a substantial portion of the benefits advisors work involves assisting individuals with wrongfully denied health plan claims. Accordingly, of particular concern in most investigations is whether fiduciaries are carrying out their fiduciary duties appropriately, especially with regard to monitoring service providers; the appropriate payment of plan expenses; the avoidance of self-dealing and prohibited transactions and adherence to required claims procedures and prudent claims administration, among other issues.

The EBSA also confirmed that its Health benefits Security Project (HBSP) would continue. The HBSP is a comprehensive national health enforcement project, combining EBSA’s established health plan enforcement initiatives with new protections afforded by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA). The HBSP involves a broader range of health care investigations, including compliance with ERISA, investigations of plan service providers to ensure their claims processes are providing benefits as promised and that fee arrangements are transparent, among other things. The EBSA further noted that it actively seeks input from the public as a compliment to its enforcement program.

Specifically, the EBSA has declared the participant assistance program as a source of some of its best investigative leads, and producing hundreds of cases per year-cases that, in the absence of this program, might not have been discovered. In fact, the EBSA espouses the position that the most effective approach is to focus on targeted areas of need based on leads EBSA receives from participant complaints, recommendations from outside experts such as advocacy groups, private litigation, states and other federal agencies.

In addition to this work, the EBSA also offers guidance on implementing and adhering to internal claims and appeals provisions under the ACA.

With respect to the OIG Audit recommendations, the EBSA is advocating for new 5500 Schedule J reporting requirements to include a range of claims payment data, including information on how many post services benefit claims (Claims) were submitted during the plan year, how many Claims were approved during the plan year, how many Claims were denied during the plan year, how many Claim denials were appealed during the plan year, how may appeals were upheld as denials, how many were payable after appeal and whether there were any Claims that were not adjudicated within the required timeframes. Plans would also be asked to report the total dollar amount of claims paid during the plan year.

While these are recommendations, it appears the EBSA is providing guidelines or possible “Red Flags” for possible investigations into violations. With respect to the OIG recommendation that the EBSA begin reviewing claims information it already collects, the EBSA has made it clear that it is committed to conducting focused yet robust health investigations that seek global corrections of violations in order to restore losses to participants who were harmed. Finally, consistent with EBSA’s HBSP, current and future investigations will generally include an operational review to determine health plan compliance (e.g. by conducting claims analysis to identify improper claims processing or improper benefit denials).

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 contact us.

Another Cigna Administered ERISA Health Plan, DHL Express, Sued for Embezzlement


CIGNA client, DHL Express, and its plan administrator, Robert Whitaker have been sued in federal court in Houston, alleging that the giant delivery company teamed up with its insurance company and brazenly engaged in a “scheme to withhold, embezzle, and convert ERISA plan assets through a pattern of fraudulent benefits transactions and prohibited self-dealing misconduct. Under this backdrop, together Defendants and Cigna concocted an intricate scheme to transfer and embezzle plan funds.”

According to the complaint, DHL and their parent company, colluded with CIGNA: “in spite of the glaring conflict of interest and inherent breach of fiduciary duties, Defendants agreed to an unlawful compensation structure that financially rewards Cigna for wrongfully denying and underpaying benefits claims.  Under this backdrop, together Defendants and Cigna concocted an intricate scheme to transfer and embezzle plan funds.

Additionally, the alleged scheme by DHL and Cigna left patients responsible for more than their designated share of the cost under the terms of the health care plan, “resulting in an arrangement where Cigna, a co-fiduciary, reprehensively competes with the Plan’s own beneficiaries for entitlement to plan funds.”, according to the lawsuit.

Case info: Center for Advanced Surgical Treatment v. DHL Express and Robert Whitaker in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, Case Number: 4:16 cv01919; Filed June 30, 2016.

This latest case seems to be another brick in the wall of ongoing cases, alleging similar violations, against CIGNA administered health plans across multiple sectors of the economy. Among top companies ensnared in litigation by CIGNA’s practices include household names such as Macys, JP Morgan Chase and Chevron. These practices may be endemic to the industry as a whole as evidenced by other large UnitedHealth administered health plans, such as GAP and AT&T that have also faced lawsuits alleging similar violations.

The complaint further alleges that DHL had complete and full knowledge of the possible scheme but not only refused to conduct an investigation, consistent with its fiduciary duty, but actually delegated the investigation to the fiduciary CIGNA, the alleged perpetrator of the embezzlement!

According to court documents:

Despite actual knowledge of Cigna’s self-dealing misconduct stemming from repeated alerts and warnings from Plaintiff’s official ERISA Appeals, Defendants systematically refused to take corrective action, and instead, DELEGATED INVESTIGATION OF THE SUSPECTED WRONGDOING TO CIGNA [emphasis added]”- the identified perpetrator of the misconduct.”

And, in a particularly reprehensible move, the complaint further alleges that the plans and their co-fiduciary Cigna may have intentionally misrepresented to the patients, through the EOB’s, the actual amount that was covered and paid on the claims.

The complaint alleges: “According to the explanation of benefits that was sent to the Patient, it appeared that all of the charges were denied in error and the total amount of the charges covered was $200,355.00.   However, this amount was never paid to Plaintiff, but was kept by Cigna.”

The latest DHL lawsuit, which was filed on June 30, 2016, comes on the heels other recent lawsuits involving Cigna and Cigna Administered ERISA health plans:

  • an unprecedented $13.7M ruling against CIGNA, filed on June 1, 2016, with $11.4M for underpaid claims and an additional $2.3M in statutory penalties. In that case, CIGNA’s fee forgiving protocol and claim for reimbursement of “overpayments” came under fire by the courts, ultimately ruling that CIGNA’s interpretation of plan’s “exclusionary language” provision as the basis for it’s fee forgiving protocol, was “flawed” and “legally incorrect“. The court also ruled that CIGNA’s claim for reimbursement of overpayments “fail as a matter of law” reasoning no lien or constructive trust was created and tracing requirements were not met.
  • eight days later, on June 9, 2016 over 100 of CIGNA’s self-insured clients, along with their Plan Administrators were named as defendants in a massive fraud lawsuit, alleging the plans “participated in a conspiracy and pattern of unlawful, reckless, and deceptive conduct to conceal an embezzlement and/or skimming scheme
  • and just twelve days after 100 Cigna client were sued, on June 21, 2016, Macys, another Cigna Administered ERISA Health Plan, was sued for embezzlement, alleging “Cigna issued a payment check to Plaintiff to satisfy a claim filed by Plaintiff for services performed on a patient, who is a Plan Beneficiary of Defendants; however, in addition to issuing a check to Plaintiff, Cigna issued a secret check to itself for the same amount. Cigna then cashed the secret check it issued to itself, and then placed a stop on the check issued to Plaintiff before Plaintiff could receive and cash the check to reimburse itself for services performed on Defendants’ Plan Beneficiary

As we have mentioned many times before, all ERISA health plans, medical providers and patients must educate themselves in order to understand the facts of these cases. Health plans must be proactive in ensuring benefits are adjudicated and ultimately paid solely based on the interest of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying plan expenses. Medical providers must be also proactive and adopt compliant practices and policies. Patients must understand their benefits plans and their rights as allowed under ERISA.

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 contact us.

Macys, Another Cigna Administered ERISA Health Plan, Sued for Embezzlement, Issuing “Secret Checks”

Macys Inc. and Plan administrator, Stephen J. O’Bryan, were sued and named as defendants in federal court for ERISA violations, for allegedly engaging in a “a systematic embezzlement and/or conversion scheme involving the Plan Assets of the Plan“. This is the second lawsuit filed against Cigna Administered ERISA health plan Macy’s in less than a month.

According to the complaint,

Cigna issued a payment check to Plaintiff to satisfy a claim filed by Plaintiff for services performed on a patient, who is a Plan Beneficiary of Defendants; however, in addition to issuing a check to Plaintiff, Cigna issued a secret check to itself for the same amount. Cigna then cashed the secret check it issued to itself, and then placed a stop on the check issued to Plaintiff before Plaintiff could receive and cash the check to reimburse itself for services performed on Defendants’ Plan Beneficiary

The complaint further alleges that “Cigna also issued deceptive and inconsistent documents to Plaintiff and the Patient-Plan Beneficiary, specifically the Provider Explanation of Medical Payment, Provider Explanation of Medical Payment Report, Patient Explanation of Benefits, and Cigna Claim Details Sheet.“.

According to the court documents, Macys, through Cigna, sent EOBs telling the hospital that it would not get paid until it provided proof the patient paid their entire out-of-pocket costs, at the same time, according to the complaint, Macys, through Cigna, sent a different EOB to its member patients telling them they owed nothing!

Case info: REDOAK Hospital, LLC v. Macys Inc., Welfare Benefits Plan and Stephen J. O’Bryan Case Number: 4:16-cv-01783 in the United states District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston office Court, Filed June 21, 2016.

The Macys lawsuit, which was filed on June 21, 2016, comes on the heels of two other recent lawsuits involving Cigna and Cigna Administered ERISA health plans:

  • an unprecedented $13.7M ruling against CIGNA, filed on June 1, 2016, with $11.4M for underpaid claims and an additional $2.3M in statutory penalties. In that case, CIGNA’s fee forgiving protocol and claim for reimbursement of “overpayments” came under fire by the courts, ultimately ruling that CIGNA’s interpretation of plan’s “exclusionary language” provision as the basis for it’s fee forgiving protocol, was “flawed” and “legally incorrect“. The court also ruled that CIGNA’s claim for reimbursement of overpayments “fail as a matter of law” reasoning no lien or constructive trust was created and tracing requirements were not met.
  • eight days later, on June 9, 2016 over 100 of CIGNA’s self-insured clients, along with their Plan Administrators were named as defendants in a massive fraud lawsuit, alleging the plans “participated in a conspiracy and pattern of unlawful, reckless, and deceptive conduct to conceal an embezzlement and/or skimming scheme” 

The complaint also alleges that Macys and Cigna engaged in a complicated scheme involving “fabricated” Viant repricing discounts. The complaint alleges:

“In addition to the “fee-forgiveness scheme”, Defendants and Cigna also concocted another intricate scheme to abstract and embezzle Plan Assets. Abstraction of the Plan Assets are concealed by processing Plaintiff’s out-of-network claim under a fabricated Viant Repricing Discount, even though Defendants and Cigna are fully aware of the fact that no such contract exists between Plaintiff and Viant.4 Defendants allowed Cigna to convert the full Viant discounted amount from patient-Plan Beneficiary’s Allowed Amount to Cigna’s own use, all while concealing and intentionally misrepresenting to patient-Plan Beneficiary that is has converted the Viant discounted amount through informing patient-Plan Beneficiary that the Viant Discount is $0.00.”

Also, according to court documents, the member is ultimately left holding the bag:

“As a result of the wrongful claim denial schemes concocted by Defendants and Cigna, all of the transferred Plan Assets are ultimately misappropriated by Cigna to fraudulently pay itself with Defendants’ withdrawn Plan Assets by falsely declaring the converted Plan Assets as compensation for itself generated through managed care and out-of-network cost containment “savings”, when in truth and in fact, the claim was never paid to Plaintiff and the patient-Plan Beneficiary is left exposed to personal liability for the full amount of his unpaid medical bills.”

As we have mentioned many times before, all ERISA health plans, medical providers and patients must educate themselves in order to understand the facts of these cases. The courts have provided clear guidance regarding Cigna’s “fee forgiving protocol” which has been a thorny issue for out-of-network providers across the nation and now, self-insured plans are starting to feel the pain of these potentially illegal practices.

Medical providers must be proactive and adopt compliant practices and policies. Health plans must also be proactive in validating that plan assets get returned to their plan, and not applied to cover shortfalls in another plan.

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 contact us.