Monday, November 25, 2013

In Network or Out of Network -- Courts Decide

It's been the same with every health plan that I can remember being in. There is always a communication to me that I am responsible for determining whether the provider that I choose to see is in network or not. Frankly, it's never seemed fair.

Consider that health care payers don't always update their websites with changes immediately. Doctor's offices don't want to be responsible for telling their patients in which networks they are participating providers. So, the easy way out is to put the burden on the insured who really has no good way to divine the answer.

Enter Killian v Concert Health Plan. This case was eventually argued en banc (for the lay people among us including me, that means that it was heard by all the judges of the Court) before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (housed in Chicago). The Court, as I read it, ruled for the plaintiffs. For plan participants, this is good news. For insurers and perhaps for plan sponsors, it's not as good.

The most important (to me) facts were as follows:

  • Susan Killian was a cancer patient.
  • She suffered from lung cancer which spread to her brain.
  • The first hospital that she went to (in network) said they could not operate, but sought a second opinion.
  • The second opinion was provided at Rush University Medical Center that thought they could successfully operate.
  • She was admitted for successful brain surgery, but died a few months later.
  • The Killians (Susan Killian was married to James) received only out of network reimbursement for services at Rush.
This seems fairly normal, doesn't it? Well, it would be, if not for this fact pattern:
  • Mrs. Killian's insurance card had on it several toll-free numbers that insureds could call to ask questions about their coverage.
  • Mr. Killian called one before Mrs. Killian's surgery.
  • The representative said there was no information on the hospital (Rush), but to "go ahead with whatever had to be done."
The Court cited five points in combination in coming to its decision:
  1. Mr. Killian did appear concerned/interested in whether the providers were in or out of network.
  2. Mr. Killian did follow the instructions on Mrs. Killian's insurance card by calling one of the toll-free numbers and inquiring about the in versus out of network status
  3. Mr. Killian informed a representative (at the toll-free number) that he was looking to determine whether the surgery would be paid for as in network
  4. Mr. Killian was told by the representative at the toll-free number to "go ahead with whatever had to be done."
  5. Mr. Killian acted as a reasonable person would in extrapolating from that that the services would be covered as in network.
What the Court decided was that Mr. Killian may now pursue a claim against his deceased wife's health plan for breach of fiduciary duty. What Mr. Killian will actually do and how a court will rule on that matter is not clear, but this is the first case that I am personally aware of where the burden of determining in versus out of network status has been shifted somewhat by the Courts.

I'm not an attorney, so I'll leave the rest of the analysis to those with formal legal training. That said, as a health plan participant who has at times during his own lifetime been frustrated by the same determination, this feels like a step toward protection of plan participants who do act diligently.

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