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Health insurer tied bonuses to dropping sick policyholders

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One of the state's largest health insurers set goals and paid bonuses based in part on how many individual policyholders were dropped and how much money was saved.

Woodland Hills-based Health Net Inc. avoided paying $35.5 million in medical expenses by rescinding about 1,600 policies between 2000 and 2006. During that period, it paid its senior analyst in charge of cancellations more than $20,000 in bonuses based in part on her meeting or exceeding annual targets for revoking policies, documents disclosed Thursday showed.

The revelation that the health plan had cancellation goals and bonuses comes amid a storm of controversy over the industry-wide but long-hidden practice of rescinding coverage after expensive medical treatments have been authorized.

These cancellations have been the recent focus of intense scrutiny by lawmakers, state regulators and consumer advocates. Although these "rescissions" are only a small portion of the companies' overall business, they typically leave sick patients with crushing medical bills and no way to obtain needed treatment.

Most of the state's major insurers have cancellation departments or individuals assigned to review coverage applications. They typically pull a policyholder's records after major medical claims are made to ensure that the client qualified for coverage at the outset.

The companies' internal procedures for reviewing and canceling coverage have not been publicly disclosed. Health Net's disclosures Thursday provided an unprecedented peek at a company's internal operations and marked the first time an insurer had revealed how it linked cancellations to employee performance goals and to its bottom line.

The bonuses were disclosed at an arbitration hearing in a lawsuit brought by Patsy Bates, a Gardena hairdresser whose coverage was rescinded by Health Net in the middle of chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. She is seeking $6 million in compensation, plus damages.

Insurers maintain that cancellations are necessary to root out fraud and keep premiums affordable. Individual coverage is issued to only the healthiest applicants, who must disclose preexisting conditions.

Other suits have been settled out of court or through arbitration, out of public view. Until now, none had gone to a public trial.

Health Net had sought to keep the documents secret even after it was forced to produce them for the hearing, arguing that they contained proprietary information and could embarrass the company. But the arbitrator in the case, former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Cianchetti, granted a motion by lawyers for The Times, opening the hearing to reporters and making public all documents produced for it.

At a hearing on the motion, the judge said, "This clearly involves very significant public interest, and my view is the arbitration proceedings should not be confidential."

The documents show that in 2002, the company's goal for Barbara Fowler, Health Net's senior analyst in charge of rescission reviews, was 15 cancellations a month. She exceeded that, rescinding 275 policies that year -- a monthly average of 22.9.

More recently, her goals were expressed in financial terms. Her supervisor described 2003 as a "banner year" for Fowler because the company avoided about "$6 million in unnecessary health care expenses" through her rescission of 301 policies -- one more than her performance goal.

In 2005, her goal was to save Health Net at least $6.5 million. Through nearly 300 rescissions, Fowler ended up saving an estimated $7 million, prompting her supervisor to write: "Barbara's successful execution of her job responsibilities have been vital to the profitability" of individual and family policies.

State law forbids insurance companies from tying any compensation for claims reviewers to their claims decisions.

But Health Net's lawyer, William Helvestine, told the arbitrator in his opening argument Thursday that the law did not apply to the insurer in the case because Fowler was an underwriter -- not a claims reviewer.

Helvestine acknowledged that the company tied some of Fowler's compensation to policy cancellations, including Bates'. But he maintained that the bonuses were based on the overall performance of Fowler and the company. He also said that meeting the cancellation target was only a small factor.

The documents showed that Fowler's annual bonuses ranged from $1,654 to $6,310. But Helvestine said that no more than $276 in any year was connected to cancellations.

He said Fowler's supervisor, Mark Ludwig, set goals that were reasonable based on the prior year's experience.

"I think it is insulting to those individuals to make this the focal point of this case," Helvestine said.

Bates' lawyer, William Shernoff, said Health Net's behavior was "reprehensible."

He said the cancellation goals and financial rewards showed that the company canceled policies in bad faith and just to save money. After all, he told the arbitrator, canceling policies was Fowler's primary job.

"For management to set goals in advance to achieve a certain number of rescissions and target savings in the millions of dollars at the expense of seriously ill patients is cruel and reprehensible by any standards of law or decency," Shernoff said.

The company declined requests to make Fowler available to discuss the reviews.

Cianchetti, the arbitrator, earlier ruled the rescission invalid because Health Net had mishandled the way it sent Bates the policy when it issued coverage. At the end of the hearing, it will be up to Cianchetti to determine whether Health Net acted in bad faith and owes Bates any damages.

The disclosures surprised regulators. A spokesman said state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner was troubled by the allegations.

"Commissioner Poizner has made it clear he will not tolerate illegal rescissions," spokesman Byron Tucker said. "We are going to take a hard and close look at this case."

In recent months, the state's health and insurance regulators have teamed to develop rules aimed at curbing rescissions and to more closely monitor the industry's cancellation policies.

Other insurers that have rescission operations, including Blue Cross of California and Blue Shield of California, said they had no similar policies linking employee performance reviews to rescission levels. Blue Cross said it conducted audits to ensure that claims reviewers were not given any "carrots" for canceling coverage.

Bates, who filed the suit against Health Net, owns a hair salon in a Gardena mini-mall between a liquor store and a doughnut shop. She said she was left with nearly $200,000 in medical bills and stranded in the midst of chemotherapy when Health Net canceled her coverage in January 2004.

Bates, 51, said the first notice she had that something was awry with her coverage came while she was in the hospital preparing for lump-removal surgery.

She said an administrator came to her room and told her the surgery, scheduled for early the next day, had been canceled because the hospital learned she had insurance problems. Health Net allowed the surgery to go forward only after Bates' daughter authorized the insurance company to charge three months of premiums in advance to her debit card, Bates alleged. Her coverage was canceled after she began post-surgical chemotherapy threatments.

"I've got cancer, and I could die," she said in a recent interview. Health Net "walked away from the agreement. They don't care."

Health Net contended that Bates failed to disclose a heart problem and shaved about 35 pounds off her weight on her application. Had it known her true weight or that she had been screened for a heart condition related to her use of the diet drug combination known as fen-phen, it would not have covered her in the first place, the company said.

"The case was rescinded based on inaccurate information on the individual's application," Health Net spokesman Brad Kieffer said.

Bates said she already had insurance when a broker came by her shop in the summer of 2003, and said she now regretted letting him in the door. She agreed to apply to Health Net when the broker told her he could save her money, Bates said.

She added that she never intended to mislead the company. Bates said the broker filled out the application, asking questions about her medical history as she styled a client's hair in her busy shop and he talked to another client waiting for an appointment at the counter. She maintained that she answered his questions as best she could and did not know whether he asked every question on the application.

Bates' chemotherapy was delayed for four months until it was funded through a program for charity cases. Three years later, she can't afford the tests she needs to determine whether the cancer is gone.

So she is left to worry. She is also left with a catheter embedded in her chest where the chemotherapy drugs were injected into her bloodstream. Bates said she found a physician willing to remove it without charge, but he won't do it without a clear prognosis. That remains uncertain.

Shernoff, Bates' lawyer, claimed that the performance goals for Fowler showed that Health Net was bent on finding any excuse to cancel the coverage of people like Bates to save money.

"I haven't seen this kind of thing for years," Shernoff said. "It doesn't get much worse."

lisa.girion@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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