By: Chris Aguiar, Esq.
There is no question that the vast majority of folks in self-funding, whether benefit or service providers, have a goal in mind; providing cost effective benefits to the insured. Ask many in academia or even representatives of government agencies, and the story they tell about self-funded plans isn’t quite so favorable. Despite our mission and mandate in the law, to make decisions pursuant to the terms of the benefit plan to protect ALL plan beneficiaries, decisions that plans need to make quite often put all of us on this side of the isle in contentious situations. It’s always important to remember that the personalities and agenda often drive action and decisions must be considered carefully not only for their impact today, but their impact into the future. Every decision can have a ripple effect, either financially or on future treatment of claims. On top of that, every decision has the potential to end up in Court.
“Freedom Fighters” feed on this dynamic. We’ve all dealt with them before; Attorneys who believe “justice” must be done for their clients and will stop at nothing, even waving fees or taking on costs, to have their name on the case that potentially changes the game. Just this week, a member of The Phia Group’s Subrogation Legal team approached me about a case in Ohio (the 6th Circuit) asserting that a well-known case in the 2nd Circuit (Wurtz v. Rawlings) stands for the proposition that a self-funded ERISA plan cannot obtain ERISA preemption when the plan participant brings an action to enforce a state anti-subrogation law. There are several things wrong with this his argument that Wurtz applies to this Ohio Case. First, since the Wurtz decision arose in the 2nd Circuit, it does not have any binding authority on cases in the 6th Circuit. Second, the decision makes clear in footnote 6 that the benefit plan in that case was fully insured, and not a private self-funded benefit plan – accordingly, the analysis (and possibly the outcome) would likely be different. Finally, the Court in Wurtz went to great lengths to stretch the applicable law holding that a plan cannot claim preemption on a defensive pleading when the participant brings an action to enforce a state anti-subrogation law. These holdings by the court fly in the face of everything we understand about self-funded plans – since a claim on the basis of an anti-subrogation law is essentially a claim to which the Plan participant is not entitled to benefits under the Plan, it would appear that it is without doubt “related to” the provision of benefits. Yet, the court found a way to work its way through the analysis to hold the exact opposite.
What’s more, this “Freedom Fighter” has waived his fees and costs and indicated he has no intention of reimbursing the Plan and that if the Plan wants to be reimbursed, it should bring suit and face the argument brought forth in Wurtz v. Rawlings. Now, whether his intent is to fight for his client and ensure that justice is done, or that he can bolster his resume as the lawyer that expanded that interpretation of the law to another area of the Country, is of limited consequence. The Plan is left with the prospect of brining suit on a case worth $50,000.00, and enduring the costs, time, and risks associated with litigation.
There are several strategies that can be utilized here, but it's important to understand that every action has an opposite and immediate reaction, and decisions made in this case could not only cost the plan money, but change the law in a meaningful way with respect to future claims. Being able to seamlessly maneuver all of these issues is imperative to a successful outcome. Plans also must be cognizant of their definition of success and understand the risks of making any meaningful decision.