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Hep C Jurors Weigh $2.5 Billion Award

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(Photo: Jeferson Applegate) - Helen Meyer is one of the hepatitis patients suing Health Plan of Nevada

(Photo: Jeferson Applegate) – Helen Meyer is one of the hepatitis patients suing Health Plan of Nevada

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Las Vegas CBS KXNT – With a combination of dramatic flair and anti-Wall Street agitating, attorney Robert Eglet challenged a jury on Monday to grant the largest punitive damages award in Nevada history, totaling $2.5 billion.

Eglet is representing two Health Plan of Nevada members who claim the company is responsible for malpractice committed by of one of its contract physicians.

During the six-week trial, Eglet repeatedly characterized the health insurer as so focused on making money, that it kept its contract with a cut-rate medical practitioner at the expense of quality patient care, despite indications the doctor engaged in risky practices.

He told the jury health insurance executives across the nation are watching them, and encouraged sending a message loud enough to be “heard from Las Vegas to Wall Street.”

Plaintiffs Bonnie Brunson and Helen Meyer contracted the hepatitis C virus during outpatient procedures at the endoscopy clinic operated by Dr. Dipak Desai, one of the contract physicians on HPN’s list of health care providers. Desai’s clinic was identified in early 2008 as the source of a hepatitis outbreak requiring notification of more than 50,000 patients who might have been at risk.

Defendant HPN intends to appeal last week’s initial verdict finding the company acted in bad faith, and awarding $24 million in compensatory damages. A spokesman said the case will have major implications in the industry if it’s not overturned, raising costs and possibly requiring health insurance personnel to monitor patient procedures, which would put the companies at odds with privacy regulations.

HPN was unable during the trial to fend off claims that a series of events during its long relationship with Dr. Desai should have put executives on notice that he was a dangerous doctor. The company was left with a limited defense after pretrial motions that excluded key evidence, including policies and procedures for credentialing doctors, and discussion of criminal charges pending against Dr. Desai. Desai is scheduled for trial later this month, on charges including second-degree murder.

The $2.5 billion amounts to 15 percent of HPN’s income over a 10-year period when the company’s revenue from premiums more than tripled. The request is $1.9 billion from HPN and $590 million from its parent company, Sierra Health Services. Eglet walked the jury through mathmatical calculations to justify the request.

Deliberation will begin on Tuesday.

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