WASHINGTON: Court Reinstates Alternative Coverage Law
Insurance companies and HMOs in the state of Washington must cover alternative therapies such as "acupuncture, chiropractic services and massage therapy," a federal appeals court ruled yesterday. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a lower court ruling which said the Washington law violated the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act, the AP/Seattle Times reports. The appellate panel "said the Washington law regulates only insurers and HMOs, not workplace benefits," and thus does not violate ERISA. U.S. District Judge Wallace Tashima, who wrote the ruling, said the judges found that the law "does not have anything to do with employee benefit plans in particular. It is merely one of many state laws that regulates one of many products that an employee benefit plan might choose to buy." The panel disagreed with insurers' arguments, which Tashima said boiled down to insisting that ERISA prevents states from regulating any product or service simply because an employer purchases it. "[J]ust as a plan's decision to buy an apple a day for every employee, or to offer employees a gym membership, does not cause all state regulation of apples and gyms to 'relate to' employee benefit plans," Tashima wrote (6/18).
How 'Bout Them Apples
"This is a victory for consumers and for consumer choice in health care. It tells the insurance carriers they have to let consumers decide what kind of health care provider they want to see," said Deborah Senn, Washington Insurance Commissioner (Senn release, 6/18). Senn's spokesperson, Jim Stevenson, said the alternative therapy law is "very popular with consumers," and helped expand coverage even after its enforcement was blocked by U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess in May 1997 (AP/Seattle Times, 6/18).