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Bridging the Gaps Between...Everything

By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

You may have heard about our new Phia Certification program, through which The Phia Group requires all employees to be “certified” to the company’s satisfaction. Certification is obtained by watching, reading, and listening to a series of training materials and then taking a series of tests to confirm the employee’s understanding of our industry and all aspects of The Phia Group’s operations.

One particularly noteworthy question is:

Which of the following is the most accurate?

  1. A “gap” is the amount a health plan pays for a claim between its normal specific deductible and a laser for a particular individual
  2. A “gap” is a misalignment or misinterpretation of verbiage between the plan document and any supporting document or policy
  3. A “gap” arises when the stop-loss policy contains a limitation that is not present within the plan document
  4. A “gap” arises when the employee handbook guarantees 8 weeks of vacation but the plan says it will only cover 4

As you may have surmised, the answer is option B, which is essentially an “all of the above” type of answer. This is especially noteworthy because we find that folks in our industry often think of “gaps” as occurring only between the plan document and stop-loss policy, while in practice there are lots of other gaps that can cause lots of unforeseen problems for health plans.

A perfect example – and one that we deal with quite frequently – is when there is a gap between the plan document and a network contract. This can be one the most problematic of all gaps, since it can come out of nowhere. The issue arises like this:

A plan incurs an in-network claim, billed at $50,000. The SPD provides the plan the responsibility to audit all claims, and an audit reveals that the appropriate payable rate (the plan’s U&C rate) for this claim is $30,000. Meanwhile, the network contract provides a 10% discount off billed charges for this particular claim – resulting in the plan paying $30,000 based on the SPD, but owing $45,000 as the network rate. This is a very common scenario and not one that can be solved quite so easily; even if the plan says “oh right – the network contract! We’ll pay the network rate to avoid a fight with the network,” the dilemma may not be over, since stop-loss presumably has underwritten coverage based on the assumption that the plan’s U&C rate will be paid, resulting in stop-loss possibly denying the $15,000 paid in excess of the plan’s U&C rate. Even though there’s a network contract and the plan may have no choice but to pay it, there’s always the chance that the stop-loss policy will define its payment on other terms.

Moral of the story? Gaps in coverage can arise between the plan document and any other document – including network contracts, ASAs, stop-loss policies, employee handbooks, PBM agreements, vendor agreements, and more. Check your contracts, and make sure your SPD aligns with all of them! (Email PGCReferral@phiagroup.com to learn more.)


The Gap Doesn't Stop At the Document

By: Jen McCormick, Esq.

We frequently talk about the various types of gaps in coverage – gaps between the plan document and the stop loss policy, the network agreement and even the employer handbook.  The mission for gap-less coverage should not stop there however.  Recently, we have seen situations where employers have gaps in between their documented practices and their payroll practices. For example, an employer may allow continuation of coverage after a leave of absence for up to 3 months.  The problem, however, is that the employer’s payroll system does not allow for manual adjustments and coverage must end after a specified (i.e. two week period).  This creates an issue as an employee is paying for coverage but is not eligible for that coverage under any plan materials.  As a result, employers should not only double check that their plan materials are in sync but that their plan practices (i.e. payroll and otherwise) are aligned with those materials.


What do All These New Paid Sick Laws Mean for Employers?

By: Jen McCormick, Esq.

As many states (and cities) are starting to beginning to enact paid sick and/or leave time regulations, employers will need to understand the impact and implications.  The regulations vary by state (and city), but require eligible employers to grant certain employees paid sick time.  Various regulations are in effect already, and some are yet to become effect. Regardless of the effective date of these regulations, it’s clear that employers will need to make changes and consider how the regulations will impact their employer handbooks, plan documents (i.e. continuation of coverage) and stop loss.  Now is the time to get the ball rolling in reviewing these materials so employers can be prepared.


Pin the Tail on the Donkey & Other Blindfolded Games of Placement
By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.

Our industry (that being the self funded health benefits industry) is primarily a web-work of relationships.  Unlike a large, traditional health insurance carrier, where all functions are located under one roof, in our industry key pieces of the greater whole are comprised of various independent entities.

The funding comes from a sponsor – usually an employer.  Sometimes, these employer “groups” gather to form a captive, MEWA, association health plan, or other collective funding mechanism.  Next, they select someone to process claims and perform other administrative tasks.  Usually this is a carrier providing administrative services only (ASO) or a third party administrator (TPA).  Next, these plans – more often than not – require some sort of financial insurance to protect them from catastrophic claims, securing for themselves a specific type of reinsurance customized to fit this role, a.k.a. stop-loss.  Add to this list of entities a broker/advisor, who helps the sponsor “check all the boxes,” as well as ensure a complete and successful implementation (as well as plan management), vendors (who offer any number of cost containment services and other plan necessities), networks with providers (from direct contracts to PPOs), and a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM).  I’m sure I’ve missed a few other players, but – hopefully – you start to see how a so called “plan” is not a single being, but rather, a collection of beings coordinating with each other.  If one player drops the ball, the whole thing unravels.

I recently posted on LinkedIn a hypothetical, wherein a CEO loves the idea of medical tourism, railroads it through and has it added to their self-funded health plan; their broker and TPA pick a medical tourism vendor, and a few weeks later, a plan member is in Costa Rica for a costly procedure.  The total cost of the procedure hits (and exceeds) the benefit plan's stop loss insurance specific deductible.  Despite that, the total cost is still way less than if the procedure had taken place domestically (even after applying the plan's network discount).  Yet, stop loss denies the claim for reimbursement, citing the fact that the plan document excludes coverage for treatment received outside the United States.  Now the plan (through its TPA) has paid the vendor's fees, paid for claims that are technically excluded by the plan document, and is without stop-loss reimbursement.

The responses have been many, various, and generally spot-on (as well as – in some cases – entertaining).  Yet, it exposes a few issues and “gaps” in the web-work I described above.  The employer, TPA, and broker are excited to adopt a program that will save them money.  By extension, the stop loss carrier will save money.  In my example, the stop loss carrier did indeed save money, compared to what it would have cost (and they would have paid) domestically.  Yet, because the plan document wasn’t updated and the carrier wasn’t informed, the stop loss carrier isn’t “required” to reimburse.  Today, few carriers will reimburse when not required to do so.  There are some that, in recognition of the plan’s efforts to contain costs, would cover the loss – but most would not.

This is just one example of the issues we’re seeing today due to the “web-work” nature of our industry.  Like organs in a human body, all the pieces need to communicate and coordinate.  

It has also come to our attention that there is a growing trend whereby brokers and plan sponsors seek to use their own stop-loss rather than a “preferred” carrier selected by the TPA.  TPA’s, in turn, are worried that if the plan utilizes a carrier the TPA has not vetted, and something goes wrong, that TPA may be blamed for a conflict they had no hand in creating.  Rather than push back against this trend, however, and thusly lose business opportunities, we believe – AGAIN – the key to success is communication and preemptive coordination.  Explain the concerns, put them in writing, and have the party placing the insurance agree not to hold the TPA at fault for issues they had no hand in creating.  This will then allow a trend – that frankly can be quite good for the industry (that is, allowing plan sponsors to customize their plan to meet their needs, including who provides the stop-loss) – to thrive without threatening the TPA.

These are only two examples, but hopefully it’s now clearer to you why we must discuss these issues ahead of time, ensure all written documents align, and we coordinate before an issue arises.

Usually and Customarily Denied
By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

An increasingly common problem that self-funded plans face is that plans subject to network agreements pay claims correctly and timely and at the negotiated rate, but when the claim is submitted to stop-loss, stop-loss denies a portion of the paid claim as excessive compared to the carrier’s U&C provision.

The first question a plan should ask is whether the carrier was correct in denying the claim. For instance, if the stop-loss policy defines U&C as the prevailing charge in the area, the carrier has limited its ability to reduce the claim except based on the prevailing charge in the area, so the basis for reducing the claim is severely limited.

To contrast, if the stop-loss policy defines U&C as the lesser of the prevailing charge in the area or, say, 150% of Medicare – then the carrier has the right to perhaps reach a lower determination of payability.

This might seem like a question that shouldn’t need to be asked – and we agree! – but there are so many moving parts in the self-funded industry and so many differing interpretations of contracts that it makes sense to cover all possible bases.

No matter who the carrier is, we urge health plans to not make any assumptions about what will or will not be covered. Since many stop-loss policies contain their own definitions of U&C, a health plan should coordinate with its stop-loss carrier as early in the policy year as possible (or even, ideally, prior to signing) to determine how the carrier will treat network payments in terms of U&C.

We urge health plans to learn from others’ mistakes, and make sure all the relevant contracts align before signing them. The questions of how a stop-loss policy defines U&C and how the carrier will treat network rates are important parts of the shopping-around process!

Stop Loss and My Infinite Sadness
By: Ron Peck, Esq.

I am a firm believer in self funding.  I believe that, when done well and properly, no other type of health plan can compare to a self funded plan.  I also believe that most well formed self funded plans need stop loss insurance.  That’s why it makes me so sad to see infighting between self funded plans and their stop loss carriers.  They are on the same side; they should be allies!  Yet, too often I see a plan pay claims in accordance with one set of rules, and then stop loss re-prices the plan’s submission for reimbursement using a different set of rules.  Sometimes this is based on differing verbiage in the plan document versus the stop loss policy.  Sometimes this is based on differing interpretations of the same verbiage.  Sometimes there is no real basis for the conflict at all.  Too often it feels like the carrier is trying to deliver a heavy handed form of tough love: “If you won’t take action to contain costs, I’m going to do it for you.  It hurts me worse than it hurts you; you’ll thank me later.”  Other times it feels like a short term maneuver to cut costs, even if it means losing business long term.  Indeed, when I describe some of the positions some stop loss carriers take when dealing harshly with their plan clients, the reaction is that those carriers are being foolish – and they will certainly lose their clients… and yet… they do continue to write new business and are maintaining a client base.  This tells us that, by offering a very low rate, they attract clients.  This also tells me that those clients (and their broker/advisors) aren’t investigating the carrier’s track record.  This, in turn, makes me just as sad as the fighting.  Why?  It breaks my heart that those stop loss carriers who go above and beyond to work with their plan clients, find ways to reimburse, and collaborate with us all are not receiving the due credit they deserve.  In fact, sometimes the “premium” they charge for their white glove service ends up knocking them out of the running when they are up against a bargain basement carrier.  Trust me – the savings on premium will never equal the loss you suffer the first time a carrier denies your claim for reimbursement because they “say” you overpaid.

The moral of the story is this – First, don’t pick a carrier based solely on the premium.  You get what you pay for.  Second, review the stop loss policy, network contract, administrative service agreement, employer handbook, and plan document side-by-side-by-side.  Identify areas where they require the same entity or entities to do different things; things that can’t coexist.  Third, talk through conflicts and potential conflicts BEFORE there is a claim, and agree how they will be handled if they occur.  Fourth, carriers should incentivize plans to engage in cost saving procedures before claims are incurred – not punish them for failing to do so after the fact.  Both plans and carriers need to recognize that while it may be easier to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission, it rarely works out well for anyone.

A House Divided
By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.

In the world of self-funding, everyone plays a role.  The broker advises, the employer customizes their plan and funds it, the claims administrator (TPA, ASO, etc.) processes claims, and stop-loss provides financial insurance.  When the lines get blurred or we start asking people to do the jobs of others, we either create new opportunities or destroy the foundation.  It all depends upon whom we’re asking, what we’re asking them to do, and whether they are stepping on any other toes when so doing it.

Consider, for instance, when a benefit plan asks its stop-loss carrier whether they should or shouldn’t pay a claim.  Stop-loss is not health insurance.  It is a form of financial reinsurance.  Health insurance receives medical bills, processes the claims, and pays medical service providers for care rendered to insured individual patients.  Stop-loss allows others to handle the “health insuring,” and instead provides protection to such health benefit plans against debts – incurred by those benefit plans – when payable claims exceed a deductible.  They despise it when a plan asks them whether the plan should pay or deny a claim.  They don’t want to be the fiduciary, or deemed responsible for wrong payment decisions.  They aren’t paid to make such decisions, or incur such exposure.  As such, most stop-loss carriers have traditionally told the plan that they (the carrier) cannot make the call, and that the plan will have to comply to the best of their ability with the plan document.  That, when the claim is submitted for reimbursement to the carrier, only then will they judge the payability.

The problem?  Some carriers want to have their cake and eat it too.  They won’t tell the plan what to pay and what to deny, but they will happily criticize the plan’s decisions after the fact.  Again – let me stress that I’m talking about a minority of carriers.  These very few can ruin the reputation of an entire industry, however, and that is why it is so important to address this growing problem.

With increasing frequency – a lack of communication or presence of conflicting interpretation is resulting in stop-loss and benefit plans disagreeing regarding what is payable, how much is payable, and thus – what is covered by stop-loss.  Even more tragically, the growing number of disputes between plans and stop-loss carriers is leading to an increased number of claims paid by benefit plan sponsors that are not reimbursed by stop-loss, resulting in employers enduring negative experiences with self-funding, financial ruin, and legislative scrutiny.

For instance, a plan document may define the maximum payable rate as “usual and customary,” and define that as being a number calculated by reviewing what most payers pay.  The plan takes that to mean “private payers,” while stop-loss includes Medicare as a “payer” when calculating the payable rate.  Or, perhaps the plan applies usual and customary only to out of network claims – choosing to pay per a PPO network contract whenever possible, but stop-loss interprets the term “maximum payable” to apply to all claims – in and out of network; arguing further that the plan document controls the plan, and stop-loss only insures the plan.

The number of claims I’ve seen independently audited by the carrier, resulting in the carrier chopping away at the amount paid by the plan – in an effort to define what they feel is the “payable” amount – and the resultant conflicts will not benefit the industry.  When a self-funded employer who sponsors a self-funded plan, also uses a PPO (to avoid balance billing of their members), and that plan pays $100,000 in “discounted claims” … they expect stop-loss to pay everything paid beyond the $60,000 deductible; a refund of $40,000.  It is, after all, why they pay for stop-loss, and is something they depend upon to self-fund.  Imagine, then, when the carrier “reprices” the $100,000 using Medicare,  and decides no more than $10,000 should have been paid… well short of the $60,000 deductible.  They may even go so far as to “advise” the plan to ask the provider to refund $90,000 to the plan.

This employer will point a finger at their broker, their TPA, and stop-loss.  Taking the carrier’s advice to heart, and challenging the outrageous provider bills and/or PPO terms is the last thing they are going to do.  The sooner we realize this form of “tough love” doesn’t work, and ultimately only provides fuel for politician’s anti-self-funding rhetoric, the better.

To address this issue, it behooves both the plan (and its TPA) and stop-loss to examine the plan in its entirety during the underwriting process.  What do I mean by “entirety?”  The plan document is not enough.  A plan is more than an “SPD.”  It is also the network contracts, employee handbooks, and any other document or obligation that dictates how the plan will actually be administered.  Only by laying all of those cards on the table ahead of time and agreeing collectively how the plan will be administered in all such circumstances can disputes like the ones I described be addressed before real money is at stake.


Can’t We All Just Get Along?
By: Chris Aguiar, Esq.

It always baffles me when sides whose interests should be very well aligned can’t seem to get on the same page.  The Right and the Left blame each other for the problems in America.  Payers chastise providers for charging too much while providers point the finger back at payers for paying too little. The reality is, if we all took a seat at the table together in the spirit cooperation and compromise, we could probably figure out something that worked for everyone.

In today’s blog installment, I’m looking at the relationship between stop loss carriers and benefit plans.  Now, talk to any of us lawyers at The Phia Group, and we could talk all day about horror stories, as far as subrogation is concerned, its comes up in the same way almost every time.  Now, it doesn’t happen often – but every once in a while I’ll  come across a plan that doesn’t want to comply with its stop loss contracts and/or obligations.  It’s important that everyone realizes that we need each other to survive.  Those plans who perhaps don’t have the cash flow or population to sustain large losses especially must consider the importance of stop loss to the health of their self-funded plan.  And let’s face it, if companies didn’t make money offering a stop loss product, it wouldn’t be available in the marketplace.

The truth is, we’re on the same team.  If we can’t get on the same page, how can we expect state regulators to see the value in what self-funding brings to the benefit plan table?


Spinning the Web of the Plan Document
By: Kelly Dempsey, Esq.

(No, this isn’t about spiders.)

The date was somewhere around August 25, 1999. The location was my 10th grade biology class. I remember taking in the scenery of a new classroom and looking at all the pictures and quotes my teacher had up on the walls. One in particular caught my eye:

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Once your head stops spinning, we can continue…

I’ve since learned this quote is attributed to the former head of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan.  The context of this quote is still foreign to me, but I believe it can be applied to just about anything – so let’s apply it to plan documents.  

In general there are several entities involved in the process of administering an ERISA self-funded medical plan document, but ultimately the plan sponsor is responsible for ensuring the terms of the plan document meet the needs of the plan and its members. The plan administrator then has the fiduciary duty to administer the plan in accordance with the terms of the plan document. So when is the last time that you, the plan sponsor, have read the plan document cover to cover?  

Plan documents have to be reviewed and revised for any number of reasons, including regulatory changes – but sometimes plan documents are changed when the plan moves to a different claims administrator (i.e., hires a new TPA to administer claims, or moves from an ASO to a TPA or vice versa). The “rules” each claims administrator sets related to the plan document’s format may vary. Some TPAs will administer the document as-is. Some TPAs prefer to use their own plan document template, which the plan sponsor can either adopt from scratch or conform its existing benefits to.

I’ve written about “gap traps” before, and while this isn’t a really one of those as we typically use the term (which is most often relevant to gaps between a plan document and a stop loss policy), a type of gap arises if a restated document doesn’t mirror the prior plan document. For example, the prior plan document had an illegal acts exclusion that applies for any act that carries with it a potential prison sentence of one year. The restated plan document, however, doesn’t include this specific prison sentence limitation, which means the plan essentially will have to exclude more claims in order to comply with the terms of the plan document (such as, for instance, a DWI, which does not carry with it a sentence of up to one year, but is an illegal act!). While this would comport with the terms of the plan document, it is something for which plan members – and even the plan administrator – may not be prepared.

Another example is a situation where the prior plan contained a medical tourism program that includes many non-U.S. locations, so the plan did not include a foreign travel exclusion. When the two plan documents were “merged” such that the existing document and new format are combined, the new plan document accidentally contained both an international medical tourism program as well as a new exclusion for non-U.S. claims (because foreign travel exclusions are still fairly common). Needless to say, that type of contradiction can cause a slew of problems (including a potential gap with the stop loss policy).

The addition of a new exclusion, or even apparently minor verbiage changes within an existing exclusion (or definition, or benefit, or just about anything else, for that matter), can seem very insignificant, but has the potential for dire consequences if the intent of the plan is not reflected as clearly as possible.   

So, a few questions for employers, TPAs, consultants, brokers, and anyone else involved in plan document drafting:

•    Does the plan document actually say what the plan sponsor wants it to say?
•    Does it clearly outline what is covered?
•    Do the exclusions align with what the plan wants to be excluded?
•    If a plan document has been recently restated, have you confirmed that the terms of the new plan document are the same as the prior plan document?

It’s always best to triple-check these types of things.  Happy reading!


Dear Stop-Loss: A Ballad
By: Jon Jablon, Esq.

Author’s Note: Written in ballad meter, this can be sung to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island.”

You carriers are sometimes great,
all flexible and fair;    
But sometimes you issue denials
That make me lose my hair.

Prevailing charge in the area
is what the policy allows;
Yet when presented with a claim,
some of you break your vows.

An auditor has been brought in
to reprice the group’s claim
based on Medicare or cost…
But carriers: for shame!

The promise to strictly abide
by the policy
goes out the window, and quickly
becomes a fallacy.

Each and every claim that’s denied
must be supported by
the policy your groups have bought
when they did apply.

All carriers must use good faith
in everything they do;
making things up as you go
is legally taboo.

To cap your risk with those objective
methodologies,
make sure you always use good faith…
Revise your policies!

When an employer signs with you,
you’re expected to pay out
benefits you have promised
in the policies you tout.

The whole entire industry
is worse-off when you fail
to follow your own written rules;
in court, you won’t prevail.

The Phia Group is here to help
all those who have been harmed;
info@phiagroup.com...
You’ll never be unarmed.