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Hep C Plaintiff: Shocked, Embarrassed, Confused

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Photo- John Gurzinkski/APF/GettyImages

Photo- John Gurzinkski/APF/GettyImages

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Las Vegas CBS KXNT- When she worked as a nurse, patients would occasionally tell Bonnie Brunson they were in so much pain, they were ready to die. Brunson couldn’t understood it at the time, she told a jury in a Clark County courtroom on Friday. But years later, she sat up at night, wracked with pain and nausea from the treatment she was taking for hepatitis C, and she knew what they meant.

Brunson is one of the plaintiffs in a civil suit holding Health Plan of Nevada responsible for her infection because its list of qualified physicians included Dr. Dipak Desai, whose endoscopy clinic made headlines in 2008 after multiple cases of Hepatitis C were traced back to his practice. The suit claims HPN had prior experience with Dr. Desai at one of its own clinics, and that HPN executives should have known Desai routinely engaged in potentially dangerous practices.

Brunson’s diagnosis came three years prior to the discovery of link between the Desai clinic and the hepatitis outbreak. She knew little about the disease. When she learned it’s typically transmitted through intravenous drug use or risky sexual behavior, the illness became a source of shame, she said. She didn’t want to see anyone, and became “a hermit.”

“I was shocked, embarrassed, confused,” Brunson said.

Brunson described a full year of agonizing treatment, with side effects so harsh her doctor at one point advised her to quit, because he believed she might have a stroke. She decided to continue in spite of the risk and the suffering caused by severe headaches, nearly constant nausea, insomnia, aching bones, itching, and welts on her skin.

She is now considered cured of the disease, although she has to be tested for it yearly, and she is not permitted to give blood or become an organ donor.

Brunson told the jury she withdrew from the bedroom she had shared with her husband Carl, out of fear that she might pass the disease to him. Carl Brunson took the stand following his wife’s testimony, recalling how the couple became social outcasts, as long-time friends abandoned them.

A spokesman for HPN says this is the first case of its kind to proceed to a jury.

“Up until this case, the concept has been that a health insurer is not liable for the medical malpractice and wrongdoing of a doctor,” attorney Peter Bernhard told KXNT. “To our knowledge, the contract (between) a health insurer and its member is to provide the list of credentialed doctors,” he said. “Those doctors assume their own liability for their own malpractice. If they do wrong, they’re liable for it.”

Bernhard said the suit could have far-reaching implications for the cost and the delivery of health care. Insurers could be forced to go beyond traditionally-accepted methods for vetting physician qualifications, and might ultimately have to place personnel inside doctor’s offices to monitor patient procedures.

“It will not be good for doctor-patient relations, or for the cost of health care in Nevada,” Bernhard said.

The plaintiffs rested their case on Friday. HPN will begin to present its case on Tuesday.

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