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Trial begins for insurers in Vegas hep C outbreak

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 20, 2013 at 6:47 pm •  Published: February 20, 2013

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A Nevada jury is being asked to hold the state's largest health management company responsible for up to $1 billion in damages for sending two women to an outpatient medical clinic owned by a once-prominent Las Vegas physician where they contracted incurable hepatitis C in 2005.

With plaintiffs Helen Meyer, 76, and Bonnie Brunson, 70, sitting behind him, attorney Robert Eglet opened a civil trial Wednesday alleging that Health Plan of Nevada disregarded evidence including a dossier compiled by another Las Vegas gastroenterologist that clinic owner Dr. Dipak Desai was endangering patients at his endoscopy clinics.

A "reasonable and responsible" HMO wouldn't send patients to a doctor that it knows is "cutting costs in a manner that jeopardizes the health and safety of its insured members," Eglet told the jury.

"The most important concern should be the health and safety of its insured members."

Instead, he alleged that as Health Plan of Nevada grew to claim 82 percent of the HMO market in and around Las Vegas, it signed a low-bid contract with Desai to provide endoscopic procedures including colonoscopies to patients who were administered general anesthesia but were sent home the same day.

Desai isn't named in the civil lawsuit and wasn't in the courtroom to hear himself described as a mistake-prone physician who instructed clinic employees to rush patient care and save money by reusing medical instruments, paper aprons and latex gloves.

Attorneys for Health Plan of Nevada argue that Desai is the one responsible for the hepatitis outbreak that became public when the Southern Nevada Health District notified more than 50,000 patients in early 2008 to get tested for bloodborne diseases including hepatitis and AIDS.

Local and federal health investigators later concluded that nine people contracted hepatitis C at Desai clinics, including Meyer and Brunson. Hepatitis C was found in another 105 patients, but the cases were not conclusively linked to Desai clinics.

"They ought to be going after Desai," defense attorney Larry Scarborough said outside the courtroom. He called the lawsuit an attempt to exploit a jury's sympathy to hold a deep-pocketed corporation unfairly liable for actions it could not control.

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