Alabama’s Act Aimed at Prohibiting Financial Abuse of Elders – Should It Be Expanded to Cover Insurers and Insurance Agents?Alabama’s Elder Abuse Act attempts to protect financial abuse of elders. But by not including insurance companies and insurance agents, does the Act go far enough?

Following up on the blog post from late June concerning the intersection of elder abuse laws and long-term care litigation, this post concerns an Alabama statute aiming to prevent financial abuse of elders in the financial advisory context: “Protection of Vulnerable Adults from Financial Exploitation Act,” Ala. Code § 8-7-170, et seq. (2016) (the “Act”).  Specifically, section § 8-6-172 of the Act requires “qualified individuals” to “promptly notify” the Alabama Department of Human Resources and the Alabama Securities Commission if he or she “reasonably believes that the financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult may have occurred, may have been attempted, or is being attempted . . . .”  The Act’s definition of a “vulnerable adult” includes persons 65 year of age or older, and the Act broadly defines “financial exploitation” to include the “wrongful or unauthorized taking, withholding, appropriation, or use of money, assets, or property of a vulnerable adult.” The definition of “financial exploitation” also includes using a power of attorney or guardianship to take advantage of a vulnerable adult’s property.

Notably, the Act currently only applies to “qualified individuals,” which it defines as any “agent, investment adviser representative, or person who serves in a supervisory, compliance, legal, or associated member capacity of a broker-dealer or investment adviser.” It gives such individuals that make a disclosure “in good faith and exercising reasonable care” immunity from administrative or civil liability as a result of making the disclosure. It also gives such individuals the authorization to delay a disbursement from an account of the vulnerable adult if there is a belief that such a disbursement “may result in financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult” and immunity for such delays, if such a delay is made based on a good faith belief.

Insurance agents and insurance companies are often in similar positions as financial advisors vis-à-vis their insureds, particularly with respect to changing beneficiaries (either at the request of the owner/insured or his or her power of attorney or guardian) and disbursing policy proceeds. So should the Act also cover insurance companies and insurance agents?

An argument can certainly be made that without this addition, the elderly could still fall victim to a whole segment of financial issues. The insurance industry frequently faces the challenges of a change in beneficiary, especially late in life for insureds. Sometimes such a change is unauthorized or results from undue influence on an elderly insured. While there is no one solution to combating such abuses, a long-term agent may have a close enough relationship to the policy owner to question or prevent such a change.

In any event, by expanding the Act in the future to include reporting obligations and accompanying immunity for insurance companies and agents that make such disclosures, the elderly might be better protected and insurance companies would have better direction and protection in these scenarios.

CNA Long-Term Care Class Action — Could It Have Long-Term Consequences?A long-term care insurance class action filed in May 2018 highlights the importance of clearly defined policy language. At dispute in the lawsuit pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois is the definition of “premium class.” The phrase is not defined in the Continental Casualty Company (CNA) policy, which was issued through CNA’s Federal Judiciary Group Program. The plaintiff, who was a resident of the state of Washington at the time the policy was purchased, alleges that the term “premium class” refers to the “nationwide pool of insureds under the group insurance plan within a given age category.”  According to CNA, the plaintiff’s interpretation of “premium class” would render each state’s individual authority to approve premium rate increases a nullity, effectively “negat[ing] [state] insurance laws that are incorporated into the Policy as a matter of law.”

The policy states:

We cannot change the Insured’s premiums because of age or health.  We can, however, change the Insured’s premium based on his or her premium class, but only if  We change the premiums for all other Insureds in the same premium class.

CNA applied for premium rate increases for Washington participants in its group programs to the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) in 2015. The OIC approved certain rate changes. In 2017, CNA advised the plaintiff that his premium would increase by 25 percent in the first year, with a 25 percent premium increase each of the following two years. The CNA letter also indicated that the premium increase was not uniform across the premium class as laws and approval requirements varied by state, and the requested premiums might not be approved by all states. Plaintiff argues that the premium increase violates the terms of the policy because it is not uniform nationwide.

Plaintiff Took Issue with 2017 Rate Increases

Plaintiff Carlton Gunn, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, alleges that CNA breached the terms of the policy, breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, violated consumer protection laws, and engaged in fraudulent concealment relating to the premium increases. Plaintiff claims that both the marketing materials used in soliciting purchasers and the policy itself state that premiums would not be increased unless they were increased uniformly for everyone in the same age group. The plaintiff alleges that CNA improperly “imposed rate increases at different times and in different amounts from one state to the next.”

CNA filed a motion to dismiss arguing the complaint is not viable as a matter of law.  CNA argues that plaintiff’s interpretation of “premium class” is not reasonable and therefore cannot support the plaintiff’s claims. CNA also argues plaintiff’s interpretation would negate state authority to approve premium rate increases, which states are permitted to do with federal deference to state jurisdiction under the McCarran-Ferguson Act.

Alternatively, CNA seeks a stay of the proceedings, asserting that there is a threat of inconsistent judgments if the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner is not allowed to first address plaintiff’s “challenge to [the OIC’s] authority and how the rate decision was made” since the challenged rate increase “applie[s] to policies that fall outside plaintiff’s current proposed class definition.”

Stay tuned. If the court adopts plaintiff’s interpretation, the ruling could change how and when insurers increase long-term care premium rates.

The question of whether Mutual of Omaha discriminated against a gay man (John Doe) when it refused to issue a long-term care insurance policy due to the company’s practice of denying coverage to anyone using the HIV-prevention protocol Truvada, also called PrEP, is set to be decided by a Massachusetts court and may have an impact beyond just the parties in that case.

Two Viewpoints

For Mutual, the lawsuit is a pure insurance case because it asserts its actions are based on legitimate underwriting concerns and not bias against gay men. But for the plaintiff, the case is broader than just himself; he alleges Mutual is engaged in bias-related discrimination that, if proven, could have a disparate impact on all gay men denied insurance coverage because they use Truvada as PrEP. Not wholly unlike the situation existing during the AIDS crisis when gay men believed they were unfairly targeted by actions that insurers maintained were necessary business practices, the viewpoints of the insurer and the insured are starkly different.

Underwriting or Wrong?

The court will decide whether Doe’s claims are cognizable, and if so, whether Mutual’s decision was in violation of Massachusetts public accommodation laws. The parties argued whether jurisdiction exists and whether the specific requirements of Massachusetts public accommodation laws have been triggered. But issues related to the blanket exclusion of all Truvada users for coverage by Mutual and the plaintiff’s assertion that the exclusion is potentially discriminatory to all gay men are particularly of interest for this discussion. The plaintiff claims that Mutual relies on at least two flawed bases for its blanket decision to deny coverage to Truvada users: (1) Truvada as PrEP users are more likely to become HIV infected; and (2) there is insufficient claims experience related to the long-term effects of Truvada as PreP.

Truvada Use and Greater Chance of HIV Infection?

Does Truvada usage indicate someone is at a higher risk of HIV infection thus justifying a blanket exclusion for all Truvada as PreP users? At first glance this reasoning may seem counterintuitive given that PrEP is designed to prevent HIV infection. The concern appears to hinge on whether people taking PrEP will do so as mandated. Health authorities advocate that “people who use PrEP must commit to taking the drug every day.” Failure to do so can leave one vulnerable to HIV infection because only those who are already at high risk of HIV will even be taking Truvada as PrEP. To follow this reasoning further, someone taking Truvada as PrEP, even though not doing so as prescribed, may still feel protected from infection, and therefore, might be lulled into a false sense of security and be more likely to engage in risky behavior. Following the reasoning to conclusion, engaging in risky behavior — such as promiscuous sex or drug use –while not fully protected by PrEP, increases the chances of HIV infection. As a counterargument, Doe asserts that there is no similar blanket exclusion for other drugs requiring daily dosage to maintain their efficacy.

No Long-Term Health Information on Truvada?

Doe also attempts to rebut any assertion that there is insufficient information on long-term use of Truvada as PrEP such that a blanket exclusion is warranted. Although Truvada was first approved by the FDA in 2004, the initial approval was for HIV treatment and not for prevention. Truvada as PrEP, for long-term prevention of HIV, was not approved until 2012. The timeframe at issue in the lawsuit is 2014–2015, when the application for insurance/appeal were denied. Was there sufficient information available in 2014–2015 for Mutual to evaluate the effect that long-term use of PrEP would have on a potential insured? An argument can be made that the short period between FDA approval in 2012 and the application/appeal in 2014–2015 would have been insufficient time to answer that question as it relates to evaluating the underwriting risk. Doe attempts to thwart this argument and posits by way of expert opinion that there is no basis for a blanket exclusion for Truvada users because no scientific data exists showing adverse health risks for those who use Truvada either long-term as HIV treatment (as approved in 2004) or for those who use Truvada long-term for HIV prevention (as approved in 2012). Doe also contends it is improper for Mutual to treat Truvada differently than it does other recently FDA-approved drugs that are also without long-term safety data, such as recently approved diabetes or high blood pressure medications. Finally, Doe argues that Truvada is as safe as or safer than certain drugs that do not mandate a blanket exclusion of coverage, e.g., hormonal contraceptives and drugs used to treat depression and epilepsy. Doe contends that by not treating Truvada in the same manner as other drugs, an insurer would be unlawfully discriminating against and limiting access to public accommodation for gay men.

Regardless of why the decision was made to deny coverage in the lawsuit, the positions taken by the parties highlight the opposite characterizations put on the case by each side. Ultimately, someone will decide: Whose theory of the case is right? Believable? True? Depending on the answers, the lawsuit could be an ordinary insurance case affecting only the named parties, or it could have ramifications that affect many more than just Doe and Mutual.

We will update this blog with developments in the lawsuit and in regard to other issues related to the allegations asserted by Doe.