By: Kevin Brady, Esq.
In response to the mounting need to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19, the federal government has taken overt action in the passing of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The act effectively removes the financial barriers and facilitates access to testing, by requiring group health plans of all shapes and sizes to waive cost-sharing for expenses related to COVID-19 testing.
The federal mandate to waive all cost-sharing on testing is significant, but may not be enough to address the potential costs that patients may ultimately bear. The testing was free, but those who test positive now need care; and that care may be significantly costlier than one may think.
According to a brief prepared by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), even those patients with health insurance could face significant financial pressure following the treatment of COVID-19. For purposes of the study, KFF did a deep dive on the potential costs of treatment for COVID-19 by researching data on the treatment of pneumonia, and the out-of-pocket costs that individuals with health coverage may expect.
For those patients with serious cases, extended inpatient hospitalization will likely be necessary. According to KFF’s analysis, the average cost of care (split between the health plan and the patient) for cases with major complications or comorbidities was $20,292. A patient with no complications can expect to pay around $1,300 (in cost-sharing alone) for treatment.
Another concern for patients is that we are still early in the year and most plan participants have not even come close to reaching their deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums. This fact alone may drive the average cost to patients even higher. Even those who may not owe a significant amount in cost-sharing may still be burdened by balance bills on out-of-network claims or even surprise bills on in-network claims. Needless to say, the potential cost of care for the treatment will likely be significant on health plans and patients alike. It will be interesting to see if further guidance from the federal government or major carrier will address this issue.
While most of us are impacted in some way- social distancing, work from home, restrictions on travel- it is important that we do not lose sight of those individuals who will require significant care as a result of COVID-19 and ensure that the potential costs associated with that care are addressed in kind.
By: Kelly Dempsey, Esq.
Many federal regulations are set up to be a floor and not a ceiling – meaning employers and plans are permitted to be more generous than the federal regulation requires. This concept is important as we wade into unknown territories with the constant changes associated with coronavirus and the relevant employer and plan considerations. Two of the more common exceptions here are (1) permitted election changes for cafeteria plans under Code Section 125 and (2) requirements under HSA-qualified high deductible health plans (HDHPs), so we’ll review those quickly.
Section 125 contains specific events that qualify as permitted election changes – meaning if a specific event occurs, a participant may opt to modify their elections in the cafeteria plan (for example, stop paying premiums for medical coverage on a pre-tax basis or change how much is being contributed to an FSA or DCAP during the plan year). The rules indicate that an employer may include any of the permitted election changes in the cafeteria plan, but the employer is not permitted to provide options in addition to what the rules provide. Employers also do not have to include every permitted election change in their cafeteria plan, although most do choose to do so.
Our other example, IRS rules for HSA-qualified HDHPs, also have certain parameters for HDHPs where employers and plans are not allowed to be more generous (specifically, the minimum HDHP deductible and the maximum contribution to HSAs). Each year the IRS reviews these figures to determine if they should be modified based on cost of living changes.
In the absence of any federal or state law, employers with self-funded ERISA plans are generally permitted to expand continuations of coverage associated with leaves of absence or layoffs/furloughs (i.e., leaves and continuations not associated with FMLA or COBRA) for a timeframe that aligns with the employer’s business practices. In this time of great uncertainty with the spread of COVID-19, we understand many employers are in the process of laying off or furloughing employees due to financial strain or simply a stoppage or suspension of business operations. It’s highly likely that the federal government will issue additional guidelines related to leaves of absences and continuations of coverage in the near future, but until then, employers have broad discretion to amend their plans as they see fit. The key word here is “amend” – employers must go through the formal process of amending their SPD/PD if it does not align with the policy the employer is creating. Updating the SPD/PD to addressed modified continuations of coverage is crucial to ensure compliance with ERISA requirements and minimize the potential for creating a coverage gap with stop-loss. It’s still a bit unclear how stop-loss carriers will modify their processes (if at all) to accept changes to SPD/PDs in light of COVID-19 (i.e., if they will accept changes with less notice or if they’ll waive their right to modify premiums). The answers will likely reveal themselves soon.
By: Kevin Brady, Esq.
The first time I read a Plan Document at The Phia Group, I saw a word that I am ashamed to admit, I did not quite understand. A short word, an odd word, but an important one nonetheless. The term “Incurred” can be found over and over in most Plan Documents and stop-loss policies. Little did I know, this term would come up, over and over again as I continued to review these documents.
With some variation in the language, the typical definition of the term establishes that claims are incurred on the date with which a service, supply, or treatment is rendered to a participant. Although this seems to be the standard, some Plans and policies provide that a claim is not incurred until it is submitted to the Plan or sometimes a claim may not be considered incurred until the Plan has issued payment on the claim.
An important consideration for Plan Administrators is that the Plan’s definition of this term should not conflict with the stop loss policy. When the Plan and the policy have conflicting definitions, it may give rise to a number of reimbursement issues. For example, a conflicting definition could implicate issues with stop loss notice requirements; if the Plan is confused about when the clock starts for timely notice of a claim, the Plan may inadvertently fail to provide notice of an otherwise reimbursable claim. Further, confusion on the date with which a claim was incurred could cause a claim to fall completely outside of the policy period unbeknownst to the Plan Administrator.
Another common issue arises when the definition fails to describe how the Plan will treat ongoing courses of treatment. Will the claim be considered incurred on the date when the participant initially sought treatment? Or will each individual treatment or service be considered separately? The Plan should clearly outline these issues to avoid confusion when administering claims. Even if a Plan does describe the impact of ongoing treatment, it must also consult with the carrier to determine if their application is consistent with the carrier’s and make the necessary modifications to ensure there are no gaps between the two documents.
While it may seem very simple, failing to recognize this language gap could ultimately be the difference between reimbursement and denial on an otherwise reimbursable claim.
Plan Administrators should review the definitions in both the Plan and their policy to ensure that a gap such as this one does not preclude the Plan from reimbursement. Even better, send your Plan Document and stop-loss policy to PgcReferral@phiagroup.com and we will perform a detailed analysis of the gaps between the Plan and the Policy.
By: Nick Bonds, Esq.
Any time a group health plan has to deal with a unique type of provider, they start playing by a different set of rules. Today we focus on one provider in particular: the Military Treatment Facility (“MTF”), and the powerful tools they have at their disposal to seek payments from plans.
Modern efforts by the U.S. government to recoup military spending on medical care date back at least to World War II. At that time, the U.S. Department of Defense (“DoD”) (then the War Office) was primarily focused on recovering money spent caring for servicemembers injured by the tortious acts of third parties – essentially subrogating against private parties that injured their soldiers. Over time, federal courts determined that the DoD did not have the authority to pursue this type of recovery without legislation sanctioning a cause of action. Eventually, Congress obliged, creating the Federal Medical Care Recovery Act (“FMCRA”), which created a federal reimbursement and subrogation right against liable third parties.
This legislation evolved as military health care programs grew more complex. With the development of programs like the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (“CHAMPUS”) and then Tricare, as well as the introduction of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), and of course the expansion of the Military Health System (“MHS”) itself, a need became apparent for a mechanism by which these programs could recover medical care costs from workers’ compensation plans, automobile insurance coverage, and eventually private health insurers and self-funded health plans.
10 U.S.C. § 1095, which established the Third Party Collection Program and allows the DoD to collect from health insurance plans the health care costs incurred on behalf of insured military retirees and their dependents. The statute allows MTFs to collect from third-party payers (e.g., insurance carriers, medical services, or health plans the reasonable costs of care incurred at a medical treatment facility to the extent the insurer would pay if the services were provided at a civilian hospital. This means that a third-party payer (e.g., a self-funded plan) could not deny claims from a MTF simply based on a “Government Facilities” exclusion.
Most importantly however, as mentioned above, an MTF would not be bound by a self-funded health plan’s timely filing deadlines. Claims brought by a provider under 10 U.S.C. § 1095 are consider considered indebtedness to the United States government; which are only time-barred after six years (see 28 U.S. Code § 2415). This means that an MTF can bring a claim past not only the self-funded plan’s filing deadline, but well beyond the deadline for the plan’s stop-loss policy. This could easily lead to a situation where a Plan Sponsor finds themselves obligated to pay claims to a military hospital with little to no hope of being reimbursed by their carrier.
This fact pattern may sound familiar to plans that have had their claim denial overturned by an independent review organization (“IRO”). Under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), self-funded plans must cover these overturned claims, but the process of appealing and overturning these claims pushes them well beyond the incurral or payment period mandated by the applicable stop-loss policy. Similar to the situation with MTFs, plans find themselves statutorily obligated to pay claims that would typically be denied by the stop-loss carrier. Thankfully, a number of stop-loss carriers provider riders their policies allowing such overturned claim denials to be considered “covered,” and therefore reimbursable. This type of rider may come at a premium, but it can be invaluable to a plan that finds itself saddled with exception high, exceptionally tardy claims by an IRO.
Plans that know they have a participant population that is likely to seek treatment from a military hospital need to be aware of 10 U.S.C. § 1095 and the difficult position it can put them in. Any time a plan is dealing with unique providers (e.g., MTFs, VA providers, critical access hospitals) special rules may come in to play that can shake up the standard playing field. The Phia Group is here to help plans understand which rules they need to play by.
By: Andrew Silverio, Esq.
Anyone who works in health benefits is familiar with surprise billing – the specific kind of balance billing which occurs when a patient visits an in-network physician or hospital, and receives an unexpected balance bill from an out-of-network provider that they didn’t have an opportunity to select, and in many cases, didn’t even know they had utilized. Common culprits are anesthesiologists, assistant surgeons, and outside lab work.
We often think of this as primarily a problem for emergency claims. This makes a great deal of sense, since when someone presents at an ER or is brought there via ambulance, they likely won’t have an opportunity to ask questions about network participation or request specific providers. However, according to surprising data released in the Journal of the American Medical Association on February 11, 2020 entitled “Out-of-Network Bills for Privately Insured Patients Undergoing Elective Surgery With In-Network Primary Surgeons and Facilities (available at jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2760735?guestAccessKey=9774a0bf-c1e7-45a4-b2a0-32f41c6fde66&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=021120), these bills don’t actually seem to be more likely to arise from emergencies or other hospital stays where patients have less of an opportunity to “shop around.”
The study looked at 347,356 patients undergoing elective surgeries, at in-network facilities with in-network surgeons. These are patients who had ample opportunity to select their providers, and indeed did select in-network providers for both the surgeon performing their procedure and the facility in which it would occur. Shockingly, over 20% of these encounters resulted in a surprise out of network bill (“Among 347 356 patients who had undergone elective surgery with in-network primary surgeons at in-network facilities . . . an out-of-network bill was present in 20.5% of episodes...”) The instances that involved surprise bills also corresponded to higher total charges - $48,383.00 in surprise billing situations versus $34,300.00 in non-surprise billing situations.
The most common culprits were surgical assistants, with an average surprise bill of $3,633.00, and anesthesiologists, with an average bill of $1,219.00. In the context of previous research indicating that “20 percent of hospital admissions that originated in the emergency department . . . likely led to a surprise medical bill,” it seems that even when patients are able to do their homework and select in-network facilities and surgeons, they are just as susceptible to surprise billing. (See Garmon C, Chartock B., One In Five Inpatient Emergency Department Cases May Lead To Surprise Bills. Health Affairs, available at healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0970.)
Many states have enacted protections against balance billing and surprise billing, with Washington and Texas both recently enacting comprehensive legislation. However, these state-based laws have limited applicability, and there are to date no meaningful federal protections for patients in these situations. Until such protections are enacted, patients are left vulnerable to sometimes predatory billing practices, and plans are left to choose between absorbing that financial blow or leaving patients out in the cold.
By: Jon Jablon, Esq.
You may have read the blog post that my colleague Andrew Silverio wrote about this case just a few days ago. (If you haven’t, check it out!)
After doing a deep dive into this case, there are a few specific things I want to bring up – and to do so, I’ll do some quoting from the complaint. The plaintiffs – certain medical providers that feel they have been victimized by Cigna – have made many allegations, some very specific, and some more sweeping in nature. While we have no basis to question the facts presented by the plaintiffs, it does seem that the logic employed in the arguments leaves something to be desired. Here are a few paragraphs from the complaint that I find most noteworthy from a self-funding point of view:
13. Plaintiffs’ incurred charges for the Cigna Claims total approximately $72,757,456.28, reflecting Plaintiffs’ usual and customary rates for the particular medical services provided. But Cigna has paid only a small fraction of this amount,—$16,937,637.50, which represents only 23% of its legal responsibility.
The plaintiffs are alleging that the 23% of the total billed charges paid to them by Cigna was “only 23% of [Cigna]’s legal responsibility.”
I’ll pause to let that ridiculousness set in.
These plaintiffs are actually alleging that Cigna’s legal responsibility is to pay 100% of billed charges, across numerous claims. Not surprisingly, the complaint doesn’t support that assertion with any plan language, law, or logic, and I can’t help but wonder what the drafter of this complaint was thinking.
20. In this example, Cigna has told the provider that the unlucky Cigna Subscriber owes it $60,316.07 as the amount not covered under the Subscriber’s Plan, but has told the Subscriber that he/she owes the provider only $895.25 because Cigna negotiated a 98% discount with the provider. In doing this, Cigna misrepresents to Cigna Subscribers that the amounts improperly adjusted by Cigna are “discounts.” This misrepresentation appears on most Cigna Claim Patient EOBs.
Here, the plaintiffs allege that the EOBs provided to them identify that the amount Cigna claims to be above its allowable amount is a discount. This is a common folly and one we strongly caution against making! RBP plans often fall into this trap, since their payments are always at an allowable amount lower than the provider’s billed charges; characterizing the disallowed or excess amount as a “discount,” when it is not, is misleading to providers (causing confusion and frustration, and ultimately hurting outcomes when combating balance-billing) and a misrepresentation to members.
121& 122. For emergency services, the ACA Greatest of Three regulation and New Jersey law require Cigna to reimburse Plaintiffs at least at the in-network rate at which Cigna would reimburse contracted providers for the same services. … Plaintiffs are therefore entitled to the total incurred charges for the elective and emergency claims at issue, less Patient Responsibility Amounts not waived by Cigna.
This is not quite accurate for two reasons. First, the plaintiffs misquote the “Greatest of Three” rule; the amount that must be paid is at least the median in-network rate that each individual plan would pay for the same services, rather than the blundering mischaracterization of “the in-network rate at which Cigna would reimburse contracted providers.” Those are important differences, and, frankly, the attorney should have known better.
Second, even if this premise were accurate as written, the conclusion drawn is still nonsensical. The plaintiffs have indicated that since the payment must be at least the in-network rate paid to the same provider, then the payment must be “total incurred charges” minus patient responsibility. In other words, these providers are suggesting that the in-network rate, across thousands of claims with multiple providers, is 100%. It’s true that 0% discounts exist, but they’re somewhat rare, and it is certainly not the case here that every single relevant discount, accessed by any of the relevant health plans, is 0%.
155. Exhaustion is therefore deemed futile pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1(l) because Cigna failed to provide a clear basis for its denials and has refused to produce the requested documents necessary for Plaintiffs to evaluate the Cigna Claims denials. Cigna thus offered no meaningful administrative process for challenging its denials of the Cigna Claims.
This last example is another one where many self-funded plans run into unexpected issues. Called “futility,” this doctrine holds that appeals are not necessary, and a claimant can jump straight to a civil suit, if the plan renders appeals futile in any of various ways.
Here, if Cigna has truly issued insufficient EOBs, refused to provide substantiating documentation, and generally didn’t follow the applicable regulations, the providers have a very good argument that appeals are futile. What’s more, though, is that these actions constitute a breach of the Plan Administrator’s fiduciary duties to abide by applicable law and the terms of the Plan Document, which could subject the Plan Administrator to penalties as well as work against the payor in court.
We’re excited to see how this suit unfolds, and we’ll give you more updates when we can!
By: Philip Qualo, J.D.
The Trump Administration has been very transparent in their efforts to undermine and dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There have been several milestones in these efforts, such as essentially gutting the ACA Individual Mandate by reducing the penalty to $0 for individuals who forego health plan coverage for the tax year. The Trump Administration has also passed on the torch to the federal courts, as the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has recently ruled that the Individual Mandate is unconstitutional, and has kicked the case back to the lower courts to determine whether other parts of the ACA should be overturned as well.
However, there appears to be at least one aspect of the ACA that the Trump Administration appears to support – the revenue generated by PCORI fees. The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) fee was established as a part of the ACA to fund medical research. Insurers and employers with self-insured plans are subject to the fee. The last PCORI fee payment was expected to occur on July 31, 2019 (or July 31, 2020 for non-calendar year plans). The ACA mandated payment of an annual PCORI fee was intended to be a temporary measure as it only applied to plan years ending after September 30, 2012, and before October 1, 2019, to provide initial funding for the Washington, D.C. based institute.
This past year, we have consistently advised our clients that PCORI fees would be a thing of the past – based on the law at that time. However, each time I wrote or spoke those words I had this gnawing feeling in my gut. Although the PCORI fee was intended to be a temporary assessment, it was difficult for me to imagine that we would let a revenue-generating assessment just slowly fade away into oblivion.
Well… it looks like I was right (I should have placed a wager on this!). On December 20, 2020, President Trump signed 2020 spending legislation (the 2020 “Further Consolidated Appropriations Act”), repealing three ACA related taxes: the 40% “Cadillac” Tax on high-cost employer-provided health coverage, a 2.3% excise tax on medical devices, and the Health Insurance Tax (HIT) on fully-insured plans. Although these cuts would appear to be in line with the Administration’s efforts to obliterate the ACA’s existence, for some reason, the Trump Administration make a last-minute decision to preserve and extend the PCORI fee for another 10 years through the Act. This means employers with self-funded plans must continue paying the administratively burdensome PCORI fee.
Although the future of the ACA is still a question mark at this time, based on this recent extension of a small portion of the ACA, I think it is fair to conclude that PCORI fees are here to stay. In about 9 years from now, whether the ACA is still here or not, I predict PCORI fees are either extended … again, or written into another legislation to make it a permanent excise tax on health plans.
Please note, that the next PCORI fee is due by July 31, 2020. The IRS has yet to announce the rates for this year, so say tuned!
By: Kevin Brady. Esq.
While businesses who are considering a potential merger or acquisition have a lot on their plates, one thing that should always be addressed is the impact that the transaction will have on the benefit plans of both the buyer and the seller. While it probably does not represent the biggest concern, overlooking the potential impact on benefit plans can cause major headaches when it comes to potential mergers and acquisitions.
Because the impact on the benefit plans will often be determined by the nature of the transaction and the specific agreement between the buyer and seller, it is important that both parties are aligned when determining how employees affected by the merger or acquisition will be provided benefits after the transaction is complete.
For our limited purposes, there are typically three types of transactions when it comes to mergers and acquisitions; an asset sale, a stock sale, and a merger.
In an asset sale for example, the buyer will typically purchase selected assets from another business (i.e. a particular department, facility, or service line). The employees who are affected by the transaction are typically considered terminated and immediately rehired by the new employer. The buyer does not have a legal obligation to hire those employees but often will do so if it aligns with their business practices. Those employees (while they may not notice a significant change in their employment or benefits) are most likely going to be considered terminated and immediately transitioned to the new employer’s health plans. Generally speaking, buyers do not continue ERISA benefit plans in asset purchases. Some, if not most, continue to offer similar benefits either under an existing employer group health plan or a new plan established after the purchase of the assets. If the buyer intends to offer similar benefits under their existing plan, they must ensure that their plan allows coverage for these individuals.
On the other hand, in the event of a stock purchase, the buyer will typically “step into the shoes of the seller” in terms of its rights and responsibilities as it relates to ownership of the business (including ERISA plans). The employees of the seller are not considered terminated in the event of a stock purchase (although this does not guarantee future employment) and ERISA plans in effect at the time of the sale are typically continued after the stock purchase has taken place.
Finally, in a merger, two entities will combine to become one business entity. In this situation, similar to a stock purchase, the employees are not considered terminated at the time of the merger and if an ERISA plan was in effect at the time of the merger it will likely be continued. However, the impact on a particular entities benefit plan will often be determined based on the specific agreement between the parties.
As the nature of the transaction will have a major impact on benefit plans, it is always important to discuss the intent of both parties as it relates to their employees and those employees’ benefits. Often times, a potential merger or acquisition will include a thorough review of an entity’s compliance as well. Has the seller complied with the strict requirements to file form 5500s? Is the plan properly funded? Does the plan document itself allow for another employer to continue benefit under the plan? These are all questions, among many more, that should be asked and answered before moving forward with a potential merger or acquisition.
Finally, the buyer or the new entity (in the event of a merger), must ensure that they are compliance as it relates to their new employees and the benefits being offered to them. Buyers and sellers who could find themselves in a potential merger or acquisition should keep these things in mind as they move forward with those decisions. While a potential merger or acquisition can be a great thing for those involved, it would be a shame for unidentified issues with a benefit plan to hold things up or even prevent a potential transaction.
By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.
I really enjoy the quote, attributed to Haruki Murakami, that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This really hits home for me for a few reasons, personal and professional, but for our purposes – let’s consider how it relates to the health benefits industry and healthcare as a whole.
Anyone paying attention to the media and political debates will no doubt make note of the constant rhetoric regarding healthcare, and more to-the-point, the “cost” of healthcare. I’ve (here and elsewhere) discussed ad-nauseam my position that health “care” and health “insurance” are not the same. That insurance is a means by which you pay for care, and is not care itself. That by addressing solely the cost of insurance, and not the cost of care, you build a home on a rotten foundation. So, you can likely imagine some of the “ad-nauseam” I feel in my stomach when I hear the candidates talking on and on about how they’ll “fix” the problem of rising healthcare costs by punishing insurance carriers and making health “insurance” affordable (including Medicare-for-All).
The issue is that, ultimately, whether I pay via cash, check or credit… and whether I pay out of my own bank account, my wife’s account, or my parent’s account… at the end of the day, a beer at Gillette Stadium still costs more than a beer from the hole-in-the-wall pub, and if I keep buying beer from (and thereby encouraging the up-charging by) the stadium, prices will increase and whomever is paying (and in whatever form they are paying) will be drained, and no longer be able to pay for much longer. In other words, making insurance affordable (or free) without addressing the actual cost itself is simply passing the buck.
So, this brings me to the quote: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Pain – the pain we feel as we are forced to deal with a costly, yet necessary, thing … healthcare. As technologies improve, research expands, and miracles take place every day, I absolutely understand that with the joys of modern medicine, come too the pain of cost. We must identify ways to reward the innovators, the care takers, the providers of life saving care.
Yet, we – as not only an industry, but as a nation – also assume that with this inevitable pain, so too must come the suffering. Suffering in the form of bankruptcy for hard working Americans and their families. Suffering in the form of unaffordable care, patients being turned away by providers, and steadily rising out of pocket expenses.
I do not believe that this suffering needs to be inevitable. If instead we accept the inevitability of the “pain” inherent in healthcare, and the costs of providing healthcare, but instead identify innovative ways to address those costs, then we can avoid the suffering. Our own health plan, for instance, rewards providers that identify and implement ways to provide the best care, for the least cost. Our plan rewards participants who utilize such providers as well. We educate our plan participants regarding how, unlike in many other aspects of life, in healthcare you do NOT “get” what you “pay for.” That fancy labels, advertisements, and price tags do not equate to better care. We teach our participants how to leverage not only “price transparency,” but also quality measurements to identify the “best of the best” when seeking care – providers that perform as well or better than the rest, for the lowest cost. Rather than accept the “inevitability” of suffering, we embrace the pain – we endure the costs, the time, the resources necessary to actually care, and make ourselves educated consumers of healthcare.
The result? Plan participants – employees that have been on the plan for five or more years – will, beginning in 2020, not make any contribution payment to our plan. That’s right; their “premium” is zero dollars. The cost of their enrollment is covered, 100%, by the plan sponsor. The plan sponsor, meanwhile, can afford to do this thanks to efforts it has made, as well as efforts made by its plan participants, to keep the costs down. Indeed, a self-funded employer like us can make a choice – either assume that the suffering is inevitable, and pass the cost onto the plan members (incurring the wrath of your own employees and politicians alike), or, see that the suffering is optional, and nip it in the bud. We have identified ways to better deal with the inevitable pain, thereby minimizing the suffering endured by our plan participants.
It can be done, and we did it. You can too, but the first step is accepting that some things are inevitable, and others are not. Assigning inevitability to something that is not in fact inevitable is a form of laziness and blame shifting; and the time has come to stop that behavior, accept responsibility, do the painful work necessary to change things, and recognize that – no pain, no gain.
Our consulting team (via PGCReferral@phiagroup.com) is often presented with the following scenario: Patient A visits Hospital, and the Plan pays certain benefits to Hospital which are later discovered to have actually been excluded by the terms of the plan document. This is a classic overpayment scenario, except that Hospital refuses to refund the overpayment to the plan (which it is well within its rights to do). In response, to try to avoid the loss, the Plan decides to activate the right it has given itself to offset future benefits payable against amounts due to the Plan. The right to offset future benefits is a common one, and there is nothing inherently unenforceable about offsetting benefits due to a patient, when that particular patient owes the plan money.
This health plan interprets its offset provision to apply across different patients. Since it is unknown whether or when Patient A will incur more covered claims, the plan instead decides to recoup its overpaid funds by withholding benefits due to Patient B (who had the misfortune of being the next patient to visit Hospital).
The question posed to our consulting team is whether this is an acceptable practice.
Our answer is no.
First, regarding overpayments in general: with some exceptions – such as payments by the Plan in excess of a contracted amount, or in excess of billed charges (for non-contracted claims) – providers do not have a legal obligation to refund money to a health plan. Instead, courts have indicated that the overpayment was technically made to the patient, since the plan paid money that would have been patient responsibility, had the plan correctly denied that amount.
Plan Administrators have certain fiduciary duties pursuant to ERISA and common law, including to act solely in the interest of plan participants, to act with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying reasonable plan expenses, and to strictly abide by the terms of the Plan Document. The most apt interpretation of the practice of cross-patient offsetting is that the Plan has withheld benefits to Patient B in order to benefit the plan, such that Patient B is denied benefits to account for a prior error on the part of the plan. The plan’s attempt to make itself whole at Patient B’s expense – even though Patient B played no role in, nor benefitted in any way from, nor was even aware of, the overpayment – could be interpreted as a violation of an important fiduciary duty.
Cross-patient offsetting negates benefits due to patient B because of the Hospital’s refusal to refund money to the Plan. When we consider that it is not the provider that has technically been overpaid, but Patient A, it becomes more clear that Patient B cannot have benefits withheld to compensate for the overpayment made to Patient A. It’s an attempt to punish Hospital for not refunding money that is legally due from Patient A. Meanwhile, Patient B has paid her contributions in exchange for benefits from the plan; to withhold benefits due to Patient B because another, unrelated patient has not repaid the plan money allegedly owed is a practice we strongly recommend against.
Overpayments happen, and The Phia Group can assist in recouping them – but please, please do not offset a perceived overpayment against future claims incurred by other patients!