Cigna Accused of Using AI, Not Doctors, to Deny Claims

Cigna Accused of Using AI, Not Doctors, to Deny Claims

A new lawsuit alleges that Cigna uses artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to inappropriately deny “hundreds or thousands” of claims at a time, bypassing legal requirements to complete individual claim reviews and forcing providers to bill patients in full.

In a complaint filed last week in California’s eastern district court, plaintiffs and Cigna health plan members Suzanne Kisting-Leung and Ayesha Smiley and their attorneys say that Cigna violates state insurance regulations by failing to conduct a “thorough, fair, and objective” review of their and other members’ claims.

The lawsuit says that instead, Cigna relies on an algorithm, PxDx, to review and frequently deny medically necessary claims. According to court records, the system allows Cigna’s doctors to “instantly reject claims on medical grounds without ever opening patient files.” With use of the system, the average claims processing time is 1.2 seconds.

Cigna says it uses technology to verify coding on standard, low-cost procedures and to expedite physician reimbursement. In a statement to CBS News, the company called the lawsuit “highly questionable.”

The case highlights growing concerns about AI and its ability to replace humans for tasks and interactions in healthcare, business, and beyond. Public advocacy law firm Clarkson, which is representing the plaintiffs, has previously sued tech giants Google and ChatGPT creator OpenAI for harvesting internet users’ personal and professional data to train their AI systems.

According to the complaint, Cigna denied the plaintiffs medically necessary tests, including bloodwork to screen for vitamin D deficiency and ultrasounds for patients suspected of having ovarian cancer. The plaintiffs’ attempts to appeal were unfruitful, and they were forced to pay out of pocket.

The plaintiff’s attorneys argue that the claims do not undergo more detailed reviews by physicians and employees, as mandated by California insurance laws, and that Cigna benefits by saving on labor costs.

Clarkson is demanding a jury trial and has asked the court to certify the Cigna case as a federal class action, potentially allowing the insurer’s other two million health plan members in California to join the lawsuit.

I. Glenn Cohen, JD, deputy dean and professor at Harvard Law School, told Medscape Medical News that this is the first lawsuit he’s aware of in which AI was involved in denying health insurance claims and that it is probably an uphill battle for the plaintiffs.

“In the last 25 years, the US Supreme Court’s decisions have made getting a class action approved more difficult. If allowed to go forward as a class action, which Cigna is likely to vigorously oppose, then the pressure on Cigna to settle the case becomes enormous,” he said.

The allegations come after a recent deep dive by the nonprofit ProPublica uncovered similar claim denial issues. One physician who worked for Cigna told the nonprofit that he and other company doctors essentially rubber-stamped the denials in batches, which took “all of 10 seconds to do 50 at a time.”

Last year, the American Medical Association and two state physician groups joined another class action against Cigna stemming from allegations that the insurer’s intermediary, Multiplan, intentionally underpaid medical claims. And in March, Cigna’s pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), Express Scripts, was accused of conspiring with other PBMs to drive up prescription drug prices for Ohio consumers, violating state antitrust laws.

Cohen says he expects Cigna to push back in court about the California class size, which the plaintiff’s attorneys hope will encompass all Cigna health plan members in the state.

“The injury is primarily to those whose claims were denied by AI, presumably a much smaller set of individuals and harder to identify,” said Cohen.

Steph Weber is a Midwest-based freelance journalist specializing in healthcare and law.

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