Autism Health Plan Exclusions and Limitations May Trigger Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act Liabilities

May 1, 2023

Group health plans and insurers must ensure their programs don’t violate the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (“MHPAEA”) by improperly limiting or excluding coverage for the treatment of autism or mental therapy developmental disorders.

MHPAEA requires group health plans and health insurance issuers that offer mental health benefits to ensure that mental health benefit financial requirements and nonquantitative treatment limitations are generally no more restrictive than those applied to medical/surgical benefits. The Department of Labor Employee Benefit Security Administration (“EBSA”) has identified MHPAEA autism and other mental health and substance abuse coverage enforcement as a key priority in its current fiscal year enforcement plan. Violation of its prohibitions is costly. Aside from any costs of providing wrongfully denied coverage and defense costs for resulting investigations and enforcement, violations generally also trigger that the employer is accountable for self-identifying, reporting and paying excise tax penalties imposed for MHPAEA violations under Internal Revenue Code Section 6039D to avoid even more penalties unless an exception applies.

Although many diagnosticians and courts consider autism a neurological rather than psychological disorder, EBSA often interprets and enforces MHPAEA as applicable to Applied Behavior (ABA) therapy and other treatment for autism, For instance, an EBSA Benefits Advisor stepped in to assist a Seattle family encountering difficulty communicating with their health plan regarding claims for their child the plan reprocessed the claims, resulting in an additional $20,000 of coverage. Another parent contacted an EBSA Benefits Advisor in the Dallas Regional Office for assistance with claims that had not been paid. After the Advisor contacted the plan to resolve the issue, this family received approximately $24,000 they were owed.

EBSA also has taken more formal enforcement actions in other instances. For example, EBSA’s Los Angeles Regional Office recently investigated a large service provider that excluded coverage for ABA therapy in hundreds of self-insured plans. The EBSA investigation resulted in 3 plans removing their exclusion for ABA therapy and offering coverage for that benefit moving forward, affecting more than 18,000 participants and their beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, an investigation by EBSA’s Chicago and Dallas Regional Offices into an ABA therapy exclusion resulted in a large claims administrator adding ABA therapy as a default coverage option for all of its self-insured plans. This correction resulted in the elimination of the exclusion of ABA therapy for autism for nearly one million participants.

To protect access to autism benefits, EBSA also works closely with other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For example, EBSA assisted HHS’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in investigating an improper appeals process following the denial of coverage for autism treatment by a plan for a large school district. In the end, the plan reimbursed a total of $2,464 in unpaid claims to the participant.

The actions relating to ABM therapy and other autism-related treatment are part of a broader, high-priority EBSA and Department of Health and Human Services MHPAEA compliance and enforcement initiative which prioritizes enforcement of compliance by health plans and health insurers with MHPAEA’s mandates that health plans and insurance policies of covered health plans and insurers comply with its requirement of parity in the coverage provided for mental health and substance abuse care as compared to other care. To fulfill these requirements, health plans and insurers covered by MHPAEA must be prepared to produce documentation of their audit and analysis to demonstrate that any quantitative or qualitative requirements applicable to mental health or substance abuse coverage in form or operation are not greater than those applied to other comparable benefits. Meeting this burden generally requires significant documented analysis regarding the plan design and administration taking into complicated HPAEA regulations. Additionally, health plans and insurers also should ensure that their administrative practices and notifications comply with additional MHPAEA requirements applicable to claim determinations involving adverse benefit determinations for mental health or substance abuse treatment, as well as otherwise applicable Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”), Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) and for insured plans or policies, state insurance rules.

In the face of these and other enforcement actions, group health plans, their sponsors, their insurers, fiduciaries, administrators and employer and other MHPAEA-covered health benefit program sponsors, fiduciaries and administrators are urged to seek review and advice from legal counsel experienced with MHPAEA and other rules impacting autism diagnosis and treatment coverage about the adequacy and defensibility of their health program as it relates to coverage for autism and other developmental disabilities.

Additionally, employers also are reminded that autism and other developmental and neurological disorders also generally qualify as disabilities qualify for protection against discrimination and require accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Along with the EBSA enforcement, private participants and beneficiaries of private employer-sponsored health plans also can bring lawsuits to recover benefits and other relief for violations of MHPAEA.  Along with the actual damages, attorneys’ fees and other costs of enforcement, a successful MHPAEA enforcement also typically will reveal the sponsoring employer or union’s failure to make the required self-disclosure and excise tax payments mandated for violations under Internal Revenue Code Section 6039D, triggering added penalties beyond the initial penalties triggered by the uncorrected violation.  Furthermore, delayed discovery of these violations also makes correction particularly costly for self-insured plans and their sponsors as deadlines for submitting expenses to qualify for stop loss reimbursement often will have passed by the time the liability comes to light.  Accordingly, employer and other health plan sponsors, their fiduciaries and adminstrators generally will want to audit and monitor their health plan’s compliance with the MHPAEA throught the calendar year and as plan year or stop loss filing deadlines approach to mitigate these exposures.  

More Information

We hope this update is helpful. For more information about these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.  

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About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 35+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. As a significant part of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively domestically and internationally with business, government and community leaders to prepare for and deal with pandemic and other health and safety, financial, workforce and other organizational crisis, change and workforce, employee benefit, health care and other operations planning, preparedness and response for more than 30 years. As a part of this work, she regularly advises businesses and government leaders on an on-demand and ongoing basis about the preparation of workforce, health care and other business and government policies and practices to deal with management in a wide range of contexts ranging from day-to-day operations, through times of change and in response to operational, health care, natural disaster, economic and other crisis and change.

Author of a multitude of other highly regarded publications and presentations on MHPAEA and other health and other benefits, workforce, compliance, workers’ compensation and occupational disease, business disaster and distress and many other topics, Ms. Stamer has worked with health plans, employers, insurers, government leaders and others on these and other health care, health and other benefits, workforce and performance and other operational and tactical concerns throughout her adult life.

A former lead advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension privatization project, Ms. Stamer also has worked domestically and internationally as an advisor to business, community and government leaders on health, severance, disability, pension and other workforce, health care and other reform, as well as regularly advises and defends organizations about the design, administration and defense of their organization’s workforce, employee benefit and compensation, safety, discipline and other management practices and actions.

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law By the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Chair-Elect of the ABA TIPS Medicine and Law Committee, Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, and Past Group Chair and current Welfare Plan Committee Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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