ERISA: Federal Judges Urge Congressional Action
Today's Dallas Morning News looks at the growing number of federal judges who are urging Congress to revise the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act to allow patients to sue self-insured health plans. The latest call came in a Sept. 18 ruling that upheld Texas' HMO liability law. In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore wrote, "If Congress ... wants American citizens to have access to adequate health care, then Congress must accept its responsibility to define the scope of ERISA pre-emption and to enact legislation that will ensure every patient has access to that care." According to the Morning News, "[j]udges from Massachusetts to California -- Republicans and Democrats alike" -- have issued similar calls for change. Stephanie Kanwit, a Washington, DC, attorney for managed care plans, said, "It's judicial advocacy at its best -- or worst. I think they (judges) are frustrated, to be honest. They're frustrated with what they see coming before them, which are adverse results." Consumers for Quality Care's Jamie Court said, "When you have judges so united in calling upon Congress to change the law, there's huge injustice occurring in courtrooms across America. It is extraordinarily rare for a federal judge to comment to Congress that they need to change a law."
It's In Congress' Court
The Morning News notes that Judge Gilmore's ruling took issue with a letter sent to federal judges by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX). In that letter, Sessions said "the courts, not Congress, need to redefine ERISA." Gilmore responded, "This statement clearly exemplifies the legislature's misunderstanding as to the role of the judiciary. The courts can neither narrow nor broaden the scope of ERISA pre-emption in a vacuum." But Sessions contended that Gilmore misunderstood his letter's intent. Instead, he said the letter was meant to detail House Republicans' managed care reform legislation and to make clear that the GOP "proposal, which does not include the right to sue, should not tie judges' hands regarding ERISA." Sessions said, "I wanted judges to know that we were not deciding this issue, and that litigants, including trial lawyers, still have the right to sue if the court determined that it was applicable under the law." He noted that the GOP bill includes no provision that would either "strengthen or broaden ERISA" (Ornstein, 9/29).