FACTS: Petitioner is a domestic corporation whose primary purpose is “[t]o establish, maintain, conduct and operate a prepaid group practice health care delivery system or a health maintenance organization to take care of the sick and disabled persons enrolled in the health care plan and to provide for the administrative, legal, and financial responsibilities of the organization”. Individuals enrolled in its health care programs pay an annual membership fee and are entitled to various preventive, diagnostic and curative medical services provided by its duly licensed physicians, specialists and other professional technical staff participating in the group practice health delivery system at a hospital or clinic owned, operated or accredited by it.

On January 27, 2000, respondent Commissioner of Internal Revenue [CIR] sent petitioner a formal demand letter and the corresponding assessment notices demanding the payment of deficiency taxes, including surcharges and interest, for the taxable years 1996 and 1997 in the total amount of P224,702,641.18. . . .

The deficiency [documentary stamp tax (DST)] assessment was imposed on petitioner’s health care agreement with the members of its health care program pursuant to Section 185 of the 1997 Tax Code . . .

Petitioner protested the assessment in a letter dated February 23, 2000. As respondent did not act on the protest, petitioner filed a petition for review in the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) seeking the cancellation of the deficiency VAT and DST assessments.

ISSUE: WON THE PETITIONER IS ENGAGED IN INSURANCE BUSINESS.

HELD: NO. The mere presence of risk would be insufficient to override the primary purpose of the business to provide medical services as needed, with payment made directly to the provider of these services. In short, even if petitioner assumes the risk of paying the cost of these services even if significantly more than what the member has prepaid, it nevertheless cannot be considered as being engaged in the insurance business.

By the same token, any indemnification resulting from the payment for services rendered in case of emergency by non-participating health providers would still be incidental to petitioner’s purpose of providing and arranging for health care services and does not transform it into an insurer. To fulfill its obligations to its members under the agreements, petitioner is required to set up a system and the facilities for the delivery of such medical services. This indubitably shows that indemnification is not its sole object.

In fact, a substantial portion of petitioner’s services covers preventive and diagnostic medical services intended to keep members from developing medical conditions or diseases. As an HMO, it is its obligation to maintain the good health of its members. Accordingly, its health care programs are designed to prevent or to minimize the possibility of any assumption of risk on its part. Thus, its undertaking under its agreements is not to indemnify its members against any loss or damage arising from a medical condition but, on the contrary, to provide the health and medical services needed to prevent such loss or damage.

Overall, petitioner appears to provide insurance-type benefits to its members (with respect to its curative medical services), but these are incidental to the principal activity of providing them medical care. The “insurance-like” aspect of petitioner’s business is miniscule compared to its non-insurance activities. Therefore, since it substantially provides health care services rather than insurance services, it cannot be considered as being in the insurance business.

It is important to emphasize that, in adopting the “principal purpose test” used in the above-quoted U.S. cases, we are not saying that petitioner’s operations are identical in every respect to those of the HMOs or health providers which were parties to those cases. What we are stating is that, for the purpose of determining what “doing an insurance business” means, we have to scrutinize the operations of the business as a whole and not its mere components. This is of course only prudent and appropriate, taking into account the burdensome and strict laws, rules and regulations applicable to insurers and other entities engaged in the insurance business. Moreover, we are also not unmindful that there are other American authorities who have found particular HMOs to be actually engaged in insurance activities.

Lastly, it is significant that petitioner, as an HMO, is not part of the insurance industry. This is evident from the fact that it is not supervised by the Insurance Commission but by the Department of Health. In fact, in a letter dated September 3, 2000, the Insurance Commissioner confirmed that petitioner is not engaged in the insurance business. This determination of the commissioner must be accorded great weight. It is well-settled that the interpretation of an administrative agency which is tasked to implement a statute is accorded great respect and ordinarily controls the interpretation of laws by the courts.

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