Liability for Managed Care Decisions: The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Uneven Playing Field

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American Public Health Association




As managed care organizations expand their programs of quality assurance and physician evaluation, more medical malpractice lawsuits may be brought against managed care organizations on the ground that, like hospitals, they are legally responsible for negligent corporate acts that injure patients. However, the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) shields managed care organizations from liability when they are part of an employee group health plan governed by ERISA. Unlike patients with other types of insurance, patients in ERISA health plans do not have a malpractice remedy for a managed care organization's negligence. A few federal appeals courts recently recognized that ERISA plans can be vicariously liable for their physicians' medical malpractice, but only if the physician is the plan's employee or agent. Yet ERISA still prohibits negligence claims against ERISA health plans for injuries resulting from denial of plan benefits, failure to use qualified physicians, utilization review, or improper plan administration. Current managed care operations do not neatly distinguish between administering benefits and controlling quality of care. Neither should the law. ERISA should be amended to provide employees with the same remedies that patients in non-ERISA plans enjoy.

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