Nevada Jury Considering Hepatitis C Punitive Award

By KEN RITTER

LAS VEGAS (AP) â¿¿ A Nevada jury ordered the state's largest health management organization on Tuesday to pay $500 million in punitive damages to three plaintiffs in a civil negligence lawsuit stemming from a Las Vegas hepatitis outbreak.

Two companies â¿¿ both subsidiaries of publicly traded UnitedHealth Group Inc. â¿¿ signed a low-bid contract with the physician who ran the clinic where the outbreak started, despite warnings that he sped through procedures and pinched pennies at his clinics so much that patients were at risk of contracting blood-borne diseases, attorneys for those suing the companies argued.

They had sought almost $2.5 billion, telling the jury of five women and three men on Monday that a record amount would show health corporations they couldn't put profits ahead of patient safety. The jury instead assessed a $270 million punishment from Health Plan of Nevada and $230 million from parent company Sierra Health Services.

The smaller award wasn't a disappointment, said Robert Eglet, attorney for plaintiffs Bonnie and Carl Brunson, both in their 70s.

"The jury sent a strong message not only to HPN and Sierra Health, but to every HMO and health insurance company in this country," Eglet said. "You've got to provide a fair and responsible reimbursement rate to medical providers so that they are able to provide quality health care to their insured members."

Plaintiff Helen Meyer, 76, declared herself "very happy." She was represented by attorney Will Kemp.

The companies derided the award, promising to appeal and warning that it could drive up health insurance rates if it stands.

"The number announced today ... represents fantasy damages, not punitive damages," said a statement from company spokesman Tyler Mason. "The only numbers that matter here are the higher insurance premiums that Nevadans may pay if health plans are held liable for the criminal conduct of independent doctors."

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