APA, AMA, Others Move to Stop Insurer from Overturning Mental Health Claims Ruling

Alicia Ault

May 26, 2021

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has joined with the American Medical Association (AMA) and other medical societies to oppose United Behavioral Health's (UBH) request that a court throw out a ruling that found the insurer unfairly denied tens of thousands of claims for mental health and substance use disorder services.

Wit v United Behavioral Health, in litigation since 2014, is being closely watched by clinicians, patients, providers, and attorneys.

Reena Kapoor, MD, chair of the APA's Committee on Judicial Action, told Medscape Medical News that the APA is hopeful that "whatever the court says about UBH should be applicable to all insurance companies that are providing employer-sponsored health benefits."

In a friend of the court (amicus curiae) brief, the APA, AMA, the California Medical Association, Southern California Psychiatric Society, Northern California Psychiatric Society, Orange County Psychiatric Society, Central California Psychiatric Society, and San Diego Psychiatric Society argue that "despite the availability of professionally developed, evidence-based guidelines embodying generally accepted standards of care for mental health and substance use disorders, managed care organizations commonly base coverage decisions on internally developed 'level of care guidelines' that are inappropriately restrictive."

The guidelines "may lead to denial of coverage for treatment that is recommended by a patient's physician and even cut off coverage when treatment is already being delivered," said the groups.

The US Department of Labor also filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs who are suing UBH. Those individuals suffered injury when they were denied coverage, said the federal agency, which regulates employer-sponsored insurance plans.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta also made an amicus filing supporting the plaintiffs.

"When insurers limit access to this critical care, they leave Californians who need it feeling as if they have no other option than to try to cope alone," said Bonta in a statement.

"Discrimination Must End"

Bonta said he agreed with a 2019 ruling by the US District Court for the Northern District of California that UBH had violated its fiduciary duties by wrongfully using its internally developed coverage determination guidelines and level of care guidelines to deny care.

The court also found that UBH's medically necessary criteria meant that only "acute" episodes would be covered. Instead, said the court last November, chronic and comorbid conditions should always be treated, according to Maureen Gammon and Kathleen Rosenow of Willis Towers Watson, a risk advisor.

In November, the same Northern California District Court ruled on the remedies it would require of United, including that the insurer reprocess more than 67,000 claims. UBH was also barred indefinitely from using any of its guidelines to make coverage determinations. Instead, it was ordered to make determinations "consistent with generally accepted standards of care," and consistent with state laws.

The District Court denied a request by UBH to put a hold on the claims reprocessing until it appealed the overall case. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in February granted that request.

Then, in March, United appealed the District Court's overall ruling, claiming that the plaintiffs had not proven harm. 

The US Chamber of Commerce has filed a brief in support of United, agreeing with its arguments.

However, the APA and other clinician groups said there is no question of harm.

"Failure to provide appropriate levels of care for treatment of mental illness and substance use disorders leads to relapse, overdose, transmission of infectious diseases, and death," said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, MD, MPA, in a statement

APA President Vivian Pender, MD, said guidelines that "are overly focused on stabilizing acute symptoms of mental health and substance use disorders," are not treating the underlying disease. "When the injury is physical, insurers treat the underlying disease and not just the symptoms. Discrimination against patients with mental illness must end," she said.

No court has ever recognized the type of claims reprocessing ordered by the District Court judge, said attorneys Nathaniel Cohen and Joseph Laska of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, in an analysis of the case.

"If upheld, the litigation will likely have significant impacts beyond the parties involved," Cohen and Laska write. "Practitioners, health plans, and health insurers would be wise to track UBH's long-awaited appeal to the Ninth Circuit."

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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