California Judge Postpones Aetna Trial Amid Media Firestorm

(Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A California judge has postponed a jury trial over whether Aetna improperly denied care to a Huntington Beach man with a rare autoimmune disease, saying the very recent and widespread media coverage of the case could jeopardize the insurer’s chance of a fair trial.

The trial had been scheduled to begin this week, but Orange County Superior Court Judge John Gastelum set a new date of Aug. 20.

He cited a CNN report and related news stories, including one published by California Healthline, that said a former Aetna medical director had testified in a sworn deposition that before deciding whether to deny or approve care, he relied on information provided by nurses rather than examining patients’ records himself. That was how the company trained him, he said.

The CNN report prompted California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and the top managed-care regulator in the state to launch investigations of Aetna, the nation’s third-largest health insurer.

“Just before we start the trial, here comes this media blitzkrieg,” Gastelum said at a hearing Wednesday. “There is a … reasonable likelihood of prejudice here. And this is clearly a totally one-sided story. There’s no basis here whatsoever to even begin to argue that there are both sides presented.”

Since the reports were published, six states have launched investigations of Aetna’s denial of coverage procedures, an attorney for the Hartford, Ct.-based company said during the hearing. The Aetna attorney also said a class-action lawsuit had been filed in federal court based on the CNN report.

Aetna spokesman T.J. Crawford declined Thursday to comment on the judge’s decision, saying in an email, “it speaks for itself.”

CNN did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the plaintiff’s attorney, Scott Glovsky. During Wednesday’s hearing, Glovsky told the judge, “We’re not CNN. We don’t control what they do, we don’t control what any of the media does.”

But Gastelum seemed to suspect that Glovsky had sought the media coverage to gain the advantage, and he warned him that “if something like this happens again, there will be consequences.”

In an earlier statement, Aetna had said that the former medical director’s statement “was taken out of context to create media and courtroom leverage, and is a gross misrepresentation of how the process actually works.”

The 23-year-old plaintiff, Gillen Washington, had been receiving expensive medication for years to treat his disorder, known as common variable immune deficiency.

But in 2014, Aetna denied the college student’s monthly dose of immunoglobulin replacement therapy, saying his bloodwork was outdated. During the appeal process, Washington developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for a collapsed lung.

In recent years, as California Healthline reported last June, patients with similar diseases have faced increasing difficulty getting their insurers to approve treatments, according to clinicians and patient advocates.

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Courts Health Industry Insight Insurance