In Koehler v. Aetna Health, Inc., 683 F.3d 182 (5th Cir. 2012), the Fifth Circuit criticized a health insurer for having an SPD that mirrored the plan, and held that Cigna v. Amara did not prevent the terms of the SPD from impacting plan interpretation.
The plaintiff, a participant in an HMO, suffered from sleep apnea, for which her physicians recommended treatment by an outside specialist. Aetna denied covered for the treatment, asserting that the plan required pre-authorization for an outside referral. The parties’ dispute centered around a specific provision in the Certificate of Coverage (“COC”), which the court found was ambiguous with respect to the need for pre-authorization for outside services rendered on an ad hoc basis.
The court noted at the outset something that is common in recent-vintage plans: the plan functions as an SPD. As the court explained: “in addition to appearing in the plan, the COC’s text also constitutes the ‘summary plan description’ which ERISA requires plan administrators to provide to participants and beneficiaries. Thus, although a plan summary is a separate document from the plan itself, in this case the summary’s text is simply a verbatim copy of the underlying plan provisions.”
Continue Reading Including Ambiguous Plan Language Verbatim In the SPD Can Effectively Eliminate Discretion to Interpret It — At Least in the Fifth Circuit