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Jeanene Harlick v. Blue Shield

August 26, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California Samuel Conti, Senior District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 3:08-cv-03651-SC

The opinion of the court was delivered by: W. Fletcher, Circuit Judge:



Argued and Submitted May 11, 2011-San Francisco, California

Before: William A. Fletcher and N. Randy Smith, Circuit Judges, and Richard Mills, Senior District Judge.*fn1

Opinion by Judge William A. Fletcher


Plaintiff Jeanene Harlick suffers from anorexia nervosa. The question before us is whether Blue Shield was required to pay for her care at a residential treatment facility, either under the terms of her insurance plan or under California's Mental Health Parity Act. We conclude that her insurance plan does not so require, but that the Mental Health Parity Act does.

I. Background

A. Harlick's Treatment at Castlewood

Jeanene Harlick, who is now 37 years old, has suffered from anorexia for more than twenty years. In early 2006,

when she was a clerk at the Pacific Construction & Manufacturing Company, she relapsed and began undergoing intensive outpatient treatment. She was then enrolled in the company's health insurance plan through Blue Shield ("the Plan"), which paid for the treatment.

In March 2006, Harlick's doctors told her that she needed a higher level of care than the intensive outpatient treatment then being provided. Blue Shield employees told Harlick on the telephone that residential treatment was not covered under her Plan, but that partial or inpatient (full-time) hospitalization would be covered if Blue Shield determined that it was medically necessary. Blue Shield employees gave Harlick the names of several facilities where such treatment might be covered. Harlick and her doctors ultimately determined that none of the in-network facilities suggested by Blue Shield could provide effective treatment, so she registered at Castle-wood Treatment Center, a residential treatment facility in Missouri that specializes in eating disorders. When Harlick entered Castlewood, she was at 65% of her ideal body weight. When she had been there less than a month, a feeding tube was inserted because her "caloric level needed to gain weight was so high." Harlick stayed at Castlewood from April 17, 2006 to January 31, 2007.

According to Castlewood's website, it is a "Residential Treatment Facility and Day Hospital program for individuals needing comprehensive treatment for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders." Six levels of care are available at Castlewood. In increasing order of intensity, they are a community support group, an outpatient program, an intensive outpatient program, day treatment, "Step Down" or partial hospitalization, and residential care. Every week, patients in residential care have four sessions with an individual therapist, one session with a psychiatrist, one session with a nutritionist, and many hours of group therapy. Castlewood staff members are on-site 24 hours a day, and they plan patients' meals, monitor patients' food intake and kitchen use, provide dietary supplements, and maintain feeding tubes. Castlewood specializes in the treatment of those who, like Harlick, have multiple mental illnesses and have failed in other treatment programs. Several staff members at Castlewood have graduate degrees in psychology, but none of the staff members is a medical doctor or a nurse.

Castlewood is consistently described as a "residential" community on its website. In an FAQ section of the website discussing insurance, potential patients are told to ask their insurance companies about available benefits for "[r]esidential, mental health, non-substance abuse" treatment. The website says that "Castlewood . . . is licensed as a 'Residential' facility, so it is important to obtain the residential benefit and not simply the 'inpatient' benefit, as they might be different." The website also says that many states "have 'parity' laws, which means that the eating disorder could potentially be covered on par with medical benefits."

B. The Plan

For mental illnesses, Harlick's insurance plan covers inpatient services, limited outpatient services, office visits, psychological testing, and in-person or telephone counseling sessions. Inpatient services are covered "in connection with hospitalization or psychiatric Partial Hospitalization (day treatment)." Inpatient services for treatment of mental illnesses are discussed three times in the Plan. Each time, the Plan says that "[r]esidential care is not covered." "Residential care" is not defined anywhere in the Plan.

For physical illnesses, the Plan covers extensive hospital treatment, outpatient treatments, and office visits. It also covers certain forms of "subacute care." Subacute care is defined as "skilled nursing or skilled rehabilitation provided in a Hospital or Skilled Nursing Facility to patients who require skilled care such as nursing services, physical, occupational or speech therapy, a coordinated program of multiple therapies or who have medical needs that require daily Registered Nurse monitoring." A Skilled Nursing Facility ("SNF") is defined as "a facility with a valid license issued by the California Department of Health Services as a Skilled Nursing Facility or any similar institution licensed under the laws of any other state, territory, or foreign country." The Plan provides coverage for up to 100 days at an SNF.

C. Blue Shield's Coverage Decision

Blue Shield paid for the first eleven days of Harlick's treatment at Castlewood, but then refused to pay for the rest of her treatment. Blue Shield conducted several internal reviews of Harlick's claim, and Blue Shield employees engaged in extensive correspondence with Harlick and her mother, Robin Watson, about her claim.

On September 20, 2006, Blue Shield employee Bruce Berg reviewed Harlick's record and recommended denying the claim in an internal document that was not sent to Harlick or Watson. Berg wrote, "[T]his appears to be residential care as stated in the consent to treatment/treatment plan. . . . Residential treatment is not a benefit."

On December 8, 2006, Blue Shield employee David Battin reviewed the claim in another internal document. Battin concluded that "[t]he principal reason" for the denial was that Harlick's plan did not cover residential care. A few days later, on December 12, 2006, Blue Shield employee Risell TachinSalazar wrote to Harlick and denied the claim based on Battin's review, explaining that Harlick did not have a benefit for residential care.

On January 19, 2007, Blue Shield employee Carroll Cederberg reviewed the claim in another internal document. Cederberg again concluded that residential care was not a covered benefit under Harlick's Plan.

On March 27, 2007, David Battin reviewed the claim again in another internal document. He concluded:

The principal reason [for the denial] is that these services are not a covered benefit. As per your health plan's Evidence of Coverage (EOC); all inpatient psychiatric hospital care must be prior authorized by the Mental Health Services Administrator (MHSA), except for emergency care. Since you specifically traveled to Missouri to be admitted to this particular facility, this would not be considered as an emergency admission. You also had amble [sic] time to contact MHSA for authorization prior to your admission. In addition; [sic] residential care (room and board) is not a covered benefit. During the dates of service 4/28/06 to 8/25/06 the medical necessity of being treated as an inpatient was not established, you could have been treated as an outpatient. Since your EOC does not cover room and board, the facility fees for your residential treatment . . . are not a covered benefit.

Battin also wrote that professional fees incurred at Castle-wood, such as psychologists' fees, would be covered if Blue Shield found that the professional treatment was medically necessary. A few days later, on April 6, 2007, Blue Shield employee Mary Anne Gomez sent a letter to Harlick that repeated Battin's statements nearly verbatim.

On April 30, 2007, Blue Shield employee Carolyn Garner wrote to Harlick, reiterating that coverage for treatment at Castlewood had been denied because Harlick's plan did not cover residential treatment. Garner corrected two errors in Gomez's April 6 letter. First, she explained that the preauthorization requirement did not apply to facilities outside California. Second, she explained that professional fees incurred at Castlewood would not be covered unless the professionals billed Blue Shield independently. Since Castlewood charged a global fee that included professional fees, Blue Shield would not cover those fees. Finally, in response to an inquiry from Harlick's mother, Robin Watson, Garner wrote that California's mental heath parity law did not require Blue Shield to cover treatment at Castlewood. Garner wrote that the Plan did not cover any residential treatment, "whether the diagnosis is for a mental health condition or a medical condition," so there was no violation of the parity law.

On May 2, 2007, according to Watson, Blue Shield employee Mary Anne Gomez suggested to Watson on the telephone that Blue Shield might, in fact, cover professional fees from Castlewood, and told her to separate claims for professional fees from claims for room and board.

On August 3, 2007, Blue Shield employee Joan Russo wrote a detailed letter to Watson clarifying inconsistencies in previous letters and reiterating the reasons for the denial. She repeated that the claim had been denied because residential facilities were not covered. She explained, for the first time, that Blue Shield had paid for the first eleven days at Castle-wood because of a "coding error." According to Russo, the coder used "a procedure code that did not identify the claim as a mental health diagnosis," so it was paid automatically. Finally, Russo said that professional fees would not be covered. The letter stated that it was the final decision in Harlick's administrative appeal.

Blue Shield eventually did pay for professional fees incurred at Castlewood. It has never paid for the rest of her treatment at Castlewood.

D. DMHC review

Frustrated by Blue Shield's refusal to pay, Watson filed a complaint with California's Insurance Commissioner. Her letter was forwarded to the California Department of Managed Health Care, where Senior Counsel Andrew George investi-gated the complaint. George wrote to Blue Shield and asked, among other things: (1) why Harlick had been told that residential care was not medically necessary; (2) why Harlick was told that benefits would be denied because care was not pre-authorized, even though the Plan clearly stated that lack of preauthorization resulted only in a $250 penalty; and (3) whether Castlewood could be covered as an SNF. After talking to Russo, George concluded that "although [Harlick] ha[d] been provided with conflicting information from the Plan regarding its basis for denial," Blue Shield had denied coverage because Harlick's Plan did not cover residential care.

E. Proceedings in the District Court

On October 31, 2008, Harlick filed a complaint in federal district court. On March 4, 2010, the district court granted Blue Shield's motion for summary judgment and denied Harlick's motion for summary judgment. The court found that Harlick's Plan unambiguously excluded coverage for residential care and that, while the Plan did cover care at Skilled Nursing Facilities, Castlewood was not an SNF. The court did not reach the question whether California's Mental Health Parity Act required coverage of Harlick's residential treatment at Castlewood.

II. Standard of Review

We review de novo the district court's decision on coverage provided by an ERISA plan. Nolan v. Heald Coll., 551 F.3d 1148, 1153 (9th Cir. 2009) Like the district court, we review the plan administrator's decision whether to grant benefits for abuse of discretion. Abatie v. Alta Health & Life Ins. Co., 458 F.3d 955, 959 (9th Cir. 2006) (en banc). In the ERISA context, "a motion for summary judgment is merely the conduit to bring the legal question before the district court and the usual tests of summary judgment, such as whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, do not apply." Nolan, 551 F.3d at 1154 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

III. Discussion

A. Plan Coverage of Residential Care

For the reasons that follow, we conclude that Harlick's Plan does not itself provide coverage for her residential care at Castlewood.

1. Review for Abuse of Discretion

[1] When we review an ERISA plan administrator's denial of benefits, the standard of review depends on whether the plan explicitly grants the administrator discretion to interpret the plan's terms. Abatie, 458 F.3d at 967. The parties agree that Harlick's plan did grant Blue Shield such discretion. We therefore review Blue Shield's decision for abuse of discretion. Id. However, our review is "tempered by skepticism" when the plan administrator has a conflict of interest in deciding whether to grant or deny benefits. Id. at 959, 968-69. In such cases, the conflict is a "factor" in the abuse of discretion review. Abatie, 458 F.3d at 966-68; accord Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Glenn, 554 U.S. 105, 108 (2008). The weight of that factor depends on the severity of the conflict. Abatie, 458 F.3d at 968; Glenn, 554 U.S. at 108, 115-117.

[2] A conflict arises most frequently where, as here, the same entity makes the coverage decisions and pays for the benefits. This dual role always creates a conflict of interest, Glenn, 554 U.S. at 108, but it is "more important . . . where circumstances suggest a higher likelihood that it affected the benefits decision." Id. at 117. The conflict is less important when the administrator took "active steps to reduce potential bias and to promote accuracy," id., such as employing a "neutral, independent review process," or segregating employees who make coverage decisions from those who deal with the company's finances. Abatie, 458 F.3d at 969 n.7. The conflict is given more weight if there is a "history of biased claims administration." Glenn, 554 U.S. at 117. Our review of the administrator's decision is also tempered by skepticism if the administrator gave inconsistent reasons for a denial, failed to provide full review of a claim, or failed to follow proper procedures in denying the claim. See Lang v. Long-Term Disability Plan, 125 F.3d 794, 798-99 (9th Cir. 1997); Friedrich v. Intel Corp., 181 F.3d 1105, 1110 (9th Cir. 1999).

Harlick points to four factors that she argues should result in our review of Blue Shield's decision being tempered by skepticism: (1) Blue Shield both makes coverage decisions and pays benefits; (2) Blue Shield gave inconsistent reasons for its denial of Harlick's claim; (3) Blue Shield "never explained why the California Mental Health Parity Act did not require payment of [the] claim"; and (4) Blue Shield excluded "residential treatment" from the Plan's coverage without defining the term. We take these factors in turn.

First, Blue Shield concedes that as plan administrator it both makes coverage decisions and pays benefits. However, the record does not indicate whether Blue Shield has a history of bias in claims administration or whether it has taken any steps to promote accurate ...

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