In an important decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s Mental Health Parity Act (“Parity Act” ) requires that health insurers cover certain medically necessary treatment for certain mental illnesses, even if the insurance policy explicitly excludes such coverage.  In Harlick v. Blue Shield of Calif., __ F.3d __ (9th Cir.  August 26, 2011), the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s granting of Blue Shield of California’s motion of summary judgment, and held that under the Parity Act, Blue Shield was required to provide medically necessary health insurance benefits for mental illnesses on par with the treatment for physical illness covered under Harlick’s ERISA-governed health insurance plan.

The California legislature enacted the Parity Act in 1999 after finding that “[m]ost private health insurance policies provide coverage for mental illness at levels far below coverage for other physical illnesses.”  1999 Cal. Legis. Serv. ch. 534 (A.B.88), § 1 (West).  The legislature further found that coverage limitations resulted in inadequate treatment of mental illnesses, causing “relapse and untold suffering” for people with treatable mental illnesses, as well as increases in homelessness, increases in crime and significant demands on the state budget.  Id.  Accordingly, plans that come within the scope of the Act – including the ERISA-governed plan established by Harlick’s employer – must cover all “medically necessary” treatment for nine listed mental illnesses (including anorexia nervosa), but can apply the same financial limits – such as yearly deductibles and lifetime benefits – that are applied to coverage for physical illnesses.

In March 2006, Jeanene Harlick (“Harlick”) was advised by her doctors to seek treatment for her anorexia nervosa at a residential treatment facility.  After Harlick and her doctors concluded that none of the in-network treatment facilities suggested by Blue Shield could provide effective treatment, Harlick registered at Castlewood Treatment Center, a facility outside of the state and outside of Blue Shield’s treatment network.  Harlick was at Castlewood, a residential treatment facility, for more than 8 months.  However, Blue Shield refused to pay for Harlick’s care, because the plan specifically stated that “residential care” was not covered. 

Harlick sued Blue Shield, but after the parties stipulated that Blue Shield’s decision would be reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard of review, the district court granted Blue Shield’s motion for summary judgment.

In reviewing Harlick’s case, the Ninth Circuit evaluated whether Blue Shield abused its discretion in denying Harlick’s request for coverage for her treatment at Castlewood.  In ERISA cases, if there is a conflict of interest (i.e., same entity pays benefits and makes the coverage decision), than the administrator’s review and claim decision is “tempered by skepticism,” even if it is reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard.  Here, while the Court did not find that Blue Shield abused its discretion in denying Harlick’s claim, it did find that Blue Shield was responsible for Harlick’s residential care, based upon the Parity Act.  The Ninth Circuit stated:

Harlick’s Plan does not itself require that Blue Shield pay for residential care at Castlewood for her anorexia nervosa.  However, California’s Mental Health Parity Act provides that Blue Shield “shall provide coverage for the diagnosis and medically necessary treatment” of “severe mental illness” including anorexia nervosa.  Blue Shield is foreclosed from asserting that Harlick’s residential care at Castlewood was not medically necessary.  We therefore conclude that Blue Shield is obligated under the Parity Act to pay for Harlick’s residential care at Castlewood, subject to the same financial terms and conditions it imposes on coverage for physical illness.

The Court then turned to the question of whether Harlick’s treatment was medically necessary.  Blue Shield did not dispute that treatment at Castlewood was medically necessary until supplemental briefing filed after oral argument.  Blue Shield argued that it should be allowed to reopen its administrative process in order to determine whether Harlick’s residential care was medically necessary.  The Court explained an ERISA administrator’s obligations:

ERISA and its implementing regulations are undermined ‘where plan administrators have available sufficient information to assert a basis for denial of benefits, but choose to hold that basis in reserve rather than communicate it to the beneficiary.’  Mitchell v. CB Richard Ellis Long Term Disability Plan, 611 F.3d 1192, 1199 n.2 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Glista v. Unum Life Ins. Co. of Am., 378 F.3d 113, 129 (1st Cir. 2004)). Claimants should not be ‘sandbagged by a rationale the plan administrator adduces only after the suit has commenced.’  Mitchell, 611 F.3d at 1199 n.2 (quoting Jebian v. Hewlett-Packard Co. Employee Benefits Org. Income Prot. Plan, 349 F.3d 1098, 1104 (9th Cir. 2003)) (some internal quotation marks omitted).  Just as claimants should present all of their arguments for granting the claim to the insurer during the administrative process, an insurer should tell the claimant all of its reasons for denying the claim.  Cf Diaz v. United Agric. Employee Welfare Benefit Plan & Trust, 50 F.3d 1478, 1483 (9th Cir. 1995).

During the administrative process, Blue Shield never said that it was denying the claim because treatment at Castlewood was not medically necessary.

The Court therefore concluded that by not including as a reason for denial of the claim that the treatment was not medically necessary, Blue Shield waived this reason to deny the claim:

Blue Shield has discretion to determine whether treatment is medically necessary during the administrative review process.  But Blue Shield had to tell Harlick the “specific reasons for the denial” – not just one reason, if there was more than one – and provide a “full and fair review” of the denial. 29 U.S.C. § 1133 (emphasis added). Blue Shield told both Harlick and her mother, as well as the DMHC, that medical necessity was not the reason for its denial of Harlick’s claim. It cannot now bring out a reason that it has “held in reserve” and commence a new round of review.  See Mitchell, 611 F.3d at 1199 n.2.

Thus, even if it is expressly excluded from a plan, a California insurer is now obligated to ensure that coverage for certain medically necessary treatment for mental illness is on par with the coverage provided for necessary treatment for physical illnesses.  This ruling will thus have significant application to coverage for mental illnesses, especially autism.