Minnesota-based UnitedHealth is the biggest medical insurer in the country, with units operating in many states. At the moment, its officials are likely focused like a laser on a single one of those entities, the Health Plan of Nevada Inc.
The reason for that: Nevada law requires officials at HMOs in the state to confirm annually that they have conducted a comprehensive review of the quality of care being rendered their insured members. Two plaintiffs are citing that law to charge UnitedHealth with negligence by not adequately overseeing a Las Vegas doctor accused of thousands of acts of medical malpractice in his clinic over many years.
That doctor, Dipak Desai, is an ex-gastroenterologist who was firmly on UnitedHealth's radar well before the recent trial alleging that the plaintiffs contracted hepatitis C owing to his mishandling of the anesthetic Propofol.
In fact, Desai was at the center of what has been termed "the largest hepatitis C outbreak in United States history," with state health officials notifying 50,000 people of potential risks.
UnitedHealth officials are alleged to have known years ago that Desai was poorly regarded in his profession and rampantly compromised patient safety by reusing Propofol vials, failing to change disinfectants and performing medical procedures such as colonoscopies in mere minutes.
In fact, Desai is stated to have performed colonoscopies in as little as three minutes.
UnitedHealth is currently the defendant in a Nevada state trial. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they may ask the jury to award $1 billion in punitive damages for the insurer's material lapses in monitoring Desai and his operations over time.
The trial is the first against the insurer in regard to the hepatitis C outbreak, with many more possibly following. Teva Pharmaceutical, the company that made the Propofol in oversized reusable vials, has already paid $250 million to settle 80 lawsuits against it, as well as $750 million in punitive damages.
UnitedHealth denies liability in the matter, saying that holding an insurer liable for the malpractice acts of a doctor would result in "intrusive, burdensome and expensive oversight of how care is delivered."
Source: Bloomberg, "UnitedHealth unit liable for doctor's errors, lawyer says," Jef Feeley and Sophia Pearson, Feb. 21, 2013