Synergy Blog

Primary Payer Status Shifts from Liability Carrier to Plaintiff Post-Settlement

Rasa Fumagalli JD, MSCC, CMSP-F

In Penelope Stillwell v State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., et al. case (2021 WL 4427081), a plaintiff attempts to impose primary payer status on a liability insurer post-settlement via a qui tam action in federal district court. The U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division addressed in this recent decision Stillwell’s complaint under the False Claims Act (FCA) and the MSP Act, the basis of the qui tam action. The essence of the claim against the insurer, State Farm, was that “by failing either to settle for an amount exceeding the expected medical expenses or to provide in the settlement some other mechanism to pay future medical expenses, the insurers failed to discharge their primary-payer responsibility and remain primary payers for post-settlement medical expenses.”  US District Judge Steven D. Merryday dismissed the Stillwell’s complaint with prejudice for a failure to state a claim under the FCA and MSP.

The underlying case involved an Indiana state court negligence action for injuries sustained by William Stillwell, a Medicare beneficiary, during a fall. Although the homeowners’ association, property management and landscaping company insurers reached a settlement agreement with the Stillwells for the lump sum of $200,000, the Stillwells refused to execute the settlement documents since the settlement didn’t include a Medicare Set-Aside to cover William’s expected future medical expenses that were estimated to be $700,000. The Indiana trial court’s determination that the settlement was enforceable, was affirmed by the Indiana Court of Appeals. The terms of the settlement agreement reflected the insurers agreement to pay Medicare’s conditional payments directly from the settlement agreement. After the settlement, CMS demanded reimbursement of $29,509.33 in conditional payments after procurement costs were deducted.

After the losses in the Indiana state courts, the Stillwells sued the insurers under the FCA arguing that the insurers failed to discharge their primary payer responsibility since the settlement was less than the estimated future medical expenses. They also argued that the insurers should remain primary payers for post-settlement medical expenses and that their failure to report this responsibility to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) caused William’s physicians to falsely bill Medicare. The defendants argued that the Stillwells became the primary payers for post-settlement care after enforcement of the settlement agreement. Challenges to the pleadings were also raised.

In considering these arguments, the District Court noted the lack of CMS rules for post-settlement futures in liability settlements when compared to the rules for workers’ compensation settlements. The District Court’s opinion went out of its way to explicitly point out that “CMS has decidedly avoided regulating private liability settlements that include a Medicare beneficiary.”  It declined to impose any such obligations since establishment of such rules belongs to the legislature or executive branches.

Stillwell also argued that the insurers hid their status as primary payers from CMS since they failed to report the Total Payment Obligation to Claimant (TPOC) settlement under their Section 111 Mandatory Insurer Reporting obligation. The Court found no support for this assertion since CMS had notice of the settlement based on the resolution of the conditional payments. Similarly, Stillwell’s claim that the insurers failed to complete Section 111 reporting of an Ongoing Responsibility for Medical (ORM) post-settlement was unfounded since there is no such reporting obligation for liability insurers for post-settlement medical expenses.

The Court also considered Stillwell’s claim that a settling party must consider Medicare’s interests by selecting one of the following mechanisms: the creation of a Medicare Set-Aside, an apportionment of part of the settlement for future medical expenses, a payment of a portion of the settlement into the Medicare Trust Fund or the proposal of an alternative plan to CMS. In examining these options, the District Court noted that there was no law that required the creation of a Medicare Set-Aside to cover future medical expenses in a liability case. Since a party may use the entire settlement to pay for post-settlement Medicare covered treatment, there was also no obligation to apportion funds from the settlement. Regarding Stillwell’s claim that the settlement should have included an amount that covers expected future medical expenses, the Court noted no substantive duty to include this in a personal injury claim settlement. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the Stillwells became primarily liable for any future injury-related medical expenses. Since the Stillwells were responsible for post-settlement medical care, the insurers had no ORM to report.

The remaining arguments in the case focused on whether Stillwell’s FCA claims sufficiently alleged causation and a conspiracy between the insurers to violate the FCA and submit false claims or statements to Medicare. The Court found the claims were insufficient and warranted dismissal. Although Stillwell prevailed on her argument that her complaint was not a shotgun pleading, her action was dismissed with prejudice for failing to state a claim.

Take Away

Since William Stillwell died before the second amended complaint under the False Claims Act (FCA) and MSP Act was submitted, his need for any ongoing post-settlement medical care was moot. Rather, it appears that Penelope Stillwell’s FCA may have been motivated by a financial incentive along with a desire to force the Court to provide guidance regarding the consideration of Medicare’s interest in post-settlement injury-related care in a liability settlement.

It is clear that the Stillwells didn’t understand that the settlement of the case would make William the primary payer for any post-settlement injury-related care. Although his estimated future medical treatment would be about $700,000, liability settlements are compromise settlements that involve many more elements of damages than those found in workers’ compensation settlement. In light of this, it would be extremely rare to have a liability settlement include the full value of the estimated future medical care or even include an apportionment in the first place.

A discussion of the MSP Act and its potential impact on a settlement is a proactive way to prevent MSP confusion. Discussing the ramifications of the MSP with injury victims prior to settlement is important to avoid issues such as this and prevent the need to be in a federal district court post-settlement.

Learn more about Synergy’s MSP Compliance Services here.

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