In the September 8, 2016 edition of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Robert McKennon of the McKennon Law Group published an article regarding the use of so-called “independent” physicians used by insurance companies as a pretense to deny valid claims. In the article entitled “9th: ‘Independent’ Physicians may Favor Insurers,” Mr. McKennon summarized the recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit case, Demer v. IBM Corporation LTD Pan, 2016 DJDAR 8929 (9th Cir. Aug. 29, 2016), in which the Court noted that insurance companies frequently pay doctors a substantial amount of money to review files, and therefore their opinions are likely biased in favor of the insurance company that pays them.
The article is postedbelowwith the permission of the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
9th: ‘Independent’ Physicians may Favor Insurers
By Robert J. McKennon
Insurance companies that provide group long-term disability insurance benefits governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) usually hire a doctor which they typically refer to as an “Independent Physician Consultant” (IPC) to review the insured’s medical records and give an opinion about whether the insured is disabled. But is the insurance company’s doctor really independent and unbiased? Often times, the IPC never meets with or examines the insured, and does not even discuss the matter with the insured’s physicians. Yet, the IPC determines that the insured is capable of working simply by spending a few hours reviewing his medical records. The IPC typically disagrees with the opinions of the insured’s treating physicians, who have treated the insured for months or even years. Almost invariably, the insurer favors the opinion of its IPC over the opinions of the insured’s physicians. When this happens, what is an insured to do?
In a published opinion favorable to insureds that addresses this issue,Demer v. IBM Corporation LTD Pan, 2016 DJDAR 8929 (Aug. 29, 2016), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrated that it understands that insurance companies frequently use doctors and pay them a substantial amount of money for their services, and therefore their opinions are likely biased in favor of the insurance company that pays them. The 9th Circuit held that a district court’s review of an insurance company’s benefits decision, when it is based upon the opinion of an IPC, should be tempered by skepticism because of the financial incentive that the IPC has to pander to the insurer’s interests (again, who uses them often and pays them significant amounts of money).
InDemer, the plan participant, Daniel Demer, was an employee of IBM Corporation LTD Plan. Suffering from severe recurrent depression, spinal stenosis, chronic osteoarthritic pain, and chronic headaches and unable to continue working, he filed a claim for long-term disability benefits. MetLife, which had a structural conflict of interest because it both evaluated claims made against the plan and funded claims, initially approved his claim after concluding he was incapable of performing the duties of his occupation. However, after two years, the plan required that Demer be unable to work in any occupation for which he was suited by education, training and experience in order to qualify for benefits, and MetLife denied his claim relying primarily on the opinion of its IPC indicating that despite his supported functional limitations, Demer was capable of working in a sedentary position.
Demer appealed MetLife’s claim denial, and MetLife subsequently upheld its denial relying on the opinions of two other IPCs. One of the IPCs was board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation. He determined that while Demer “likely had a modicum of discomfort” from “neck and back pain related to spinal degeneration,” he retained physical functional capacity to perform a sedentary occupation despite a contrary conclusion from Demer’s treating physician. MetLife’s other “independent” physician consultant, board certified in psychiatry, claimed that despite the fact that Demer was taking powerful narcotic and neurological medications and asserted that he suffered from significant medication side-effects that cause fatigue and an impediment to his comprehension and communication, there was no objective data to establish functional impairment as a result of the medications he was taking.
Demer filed suit, arguing in part that MetLife operated under a conflict of interest because two of the IPCs that MetLife hired to review the medical record previously conducted a substantial number of reviews for Metlife and received significant compensation from MetLife for their services. For 2009 and 2010, one IPC performed more than 250 reviews/addendums per year, earning more than $125,000 each year. For the same time period, the other IPC performed between 200-300 reviews/addendums each year, and received more than $175,000 from MetLife each year. Based on the number of reviews and the amount of compensation, Demer asserted that the IPCs’ opinions should be questioned because the doctors had financial incentives to render opinions favorable to MetLife. Demer further argued that, because MetLife relied on the doctors’ opinions in denying him relief, the doctors’ conflict is imparted to MetLife and therefore the court should view their opinions with skepticism. The court noted that this argument is comparable to conventional approaches to discrediting the testimony of retained experts whose objectivity may be challenged based on the number of times he or she has served as an expert in support of a party and the amount of compensation received.
The district court entered judgment in favor of IBM and MetLife finding no abuse of discretion, but the 9th Circuit reversed. Thec court concluded that because MetLife’s consulting physicians earned a substantial amount of money from, and performed numerous medical record reviews for, MetLife, an inference was raised that there was a financial conflict which influenced the physicians’ assessment. It held that this conflict was a factor to be considered in reviewing MetLife’s decision under the abuse of discretion standard. Since MetLife failed to negate any inference of a financial conflict of interest, the court determined that “the number of examinations referred and the size of the professional fees paid to a reviewer may compromise the neutrality of an expert.”
The court further concluded that MetLife abused its discretion in denying Demer’s claim that his mental functional capacity was affected by his medications. The court determined that since it was undisputed that Demer took powerful narcotic medications, that these medications were medically necessary, and because they have known strong side-effects, MetLife’s conclusion (that Demer’s complaints regarding medication side-effects was not credible) was unsupported. A dissent disagreed, and stated that he would abandon “skepticism” as a separate standard of review in ERISA cases.
Even though theDemercase involved the abuse of discretion standard of review, insurers will argue that this case will have little application in de novo review cases in which the conflict analysis is not used. In California, the abuse of discretion standard of review will likely become uncommon in future cases because of California Insurance Code Section 10110.6, which renders discretionary language “void and unenforceable” in policies, contracts and certificates that provide funds for life insurance or disability insurance coverage for California residents. However, even in de novo review cases, it is advisable to remind the courts of the rationale behind the “skepticism” rule as even the 9th Circuit noted the similarity to the arguments made in non-ERISA cases. Thus, this case is useful to establish that the opinion of an insurance company IPC who never examined the insured and who undermines or rejects an insured’s credible evidence of disability should be viewed skeptically where the insured’s disability is supported and verified by the insured’s treating physicians who treated and examined the insured.