Is UnitedHealth liable for doctor who caused hep C outbreak?

UnitedHealth is fighting charges in Nevada state court that it improperly kept a doctor with "substandard" medical practices, including infecting patients with hepatitis C, within its network.

The trial, which began last week, focuses on a hepatitis C outbreak declared in 2008 stemming from gastroenterologist Dipak Desai's clinic. The outbreak caused Nevada officials to notify 50,000 patients of potential risks--the largest hepatitis outbreak in the nation's history, reported KXNT.

The plaintiffs claimed Health Plan of Nevada violated state law, which requires HMOs to "make the health and safety of its insured members its primary concern," attorney Robert Eglet said in court. Nevada law also requires HMOs file yearly reports showing they review the quality of health services their doctors and hospitals provide to members, Bloomberg reported.

Eglet recounted more than 20 years of Desai's shoddy medical practices--including botched surgeries, falsified patient records, procedures performed too fast, failure to diagnose cancer and Crohn's disease, and unhygienic conditions at his clinic--that should have led Health Plan of Nevada to remove him from its network, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Essentially, Eglet accused Desai of constantly cutting corners and compromising patient safety.

But UnitedHealth's Health Plan of Nevada said it shouldn't be held accountable for the actions of one doctor who "cared more about money than about his patients' safety and health," Lawrence Scarborough, an attorney for the insurer said during trial.

What's more, Health Plan of Nevada warned of the unintended consequences of such accusations. "Making insurers liable for the deliberate malpractice of independent doctors will force those insurers to seek intrusive, burdensome and expensive oversight of how care is delivered," Tyler Mason, a UnitedHealth spokesman, told Bloomberg.

To learn more:
- read the Bloomberg article
- see the Las Vegas Review-Journal article
- check out the KXNT article