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UHC accused of using AI to skirt doctors’ orders, deny claims


UnitedHealthcare (UHC) is the latest payer accused of using artificial intelligence (AI) to deny patient claims by trading “real doctors’ recommendations” for a flawed algorithm to save money.

In a class action suit filed in Minnesota district court, the attorneys for the families of two deceased UHC Medicare Advantage plan policyholders say that the company uses the technology to systematically deny skilled nursing facility (SNF) claims and shirk its responsibility to adhere to Medicare’s coverage determination standards.

The case raises ethical and legal questions about whether AI can replace or supplement human tasks and interactions, particularly in a field as complex as health care. California-based public advocacy firm Clarkson Law filed a similar complaint against Cigna earlier this year and has previously sued tech giants Google and ChatGPT creator OpenAI for harvesting Internet users’ data to train their AI systems.

Clarkson Law represents the plaintiffs and says that the policyholders had to pay thousands in out-of-pocket costs or forgo the recommended postacute care owing to UHC’s faulty AI model, nH Predict. The tool has a 90% error rate, says the lawsuit, as evidenced by the number of claims that are reversed following review by a medical professional. Still, just 0.2% of policyholders appeal the denials.

nH Predict was created by naviHealth and was acquired by UnitedHealth Group, UHC’s parent company, in 2020. In a statement to Bloomberg Law, a spokesperson for naviHealth said that the lawsuit has no merit and the model was not used for making coverage determinations.

According to the complaint, nH Predict determines the appropriate amount of SNF, home health, or rehabilitation services a patient requires on the basis of the diagnosis, age, and living situation. The model compares the patient with its database of 6 million patients and estimates the ideal length of stay and target discharge date, “pinpointing the precise moment when [UHC] will cut off payment for a patient’s treatment.”

The lawsuit says that employees are instructed to strictly adhere to the AI model’s predictions, and those who do not are disciplined and terminated, even when additional care for the patient is warranted. Employees are told that the generated reports contain proprietary information and that they cannot share them with physicians and patients who inquire about extending care.

“Every patient is entitled to a nuanced evaluation of their health care needs,” Zarrina Ozari, senior associate at Clarkson Law, said in a prepared statement. “By replacing licensed practitioners with unchecked AI, UHC is telling its patients that they are completely interchangeable with one another and undervaluing the expertise of the physicians devoted to key elements of care.”

According to the complaint, Gene Lokken fell in May 2022 and fractured his leg and ankle. After a 1-month SNF stay, the 91-year-old man’s doctor ordered physical therapy. However, the insurer said Mr. Lokken was safe to be discharged home two and a half weeks later, conflicting with a physical therapist’s notes that indicated he still had paralyzed and weak muscles. The insurer denied Mr. Lokken’s appeal. He remained in the facility for another year until his death, paying about $150,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, according to the lawsuit.

Another patient, Dale H. Tetzloff, initially spent just 20 days in a SNF for stroke rehabilitation before UHC denied coverage. An appeal later extended the stay to 40 days, short of the 100 days recommended by his physician. Requests for further extensions were unsuccessful, and Mr. Tetzloff ultimately paid about $70,000 in out-of-pocket expenses over the next 10 months, according to the complaint.

New federal rules prohibit Medicare Advantage plans from relying on an algorithm or software to make medically necessary determinations instead of an individual’s specific circumstances. Any medical necessity denial must be “reviewed by a physician or other appropriate health care professional with expertise in the field of medicine or health care that is appropriate for the service at issue.”

Clarkson is demanding a jury trial and has asked the court to certify the case as a federal class action, which could open the suit to any U.S. resident who purchased a UHC Medicare Advantage plan in the past 4 years.

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