LAS VEGAS (AP) – One of the largest U.S. health insurance companies and its branches in Nevada were found liable Tuesday for $60 million in punitive damages for underpaying out-of-network emergency medical providers.
A state court jury said three plaintiffs headed by urgent care staffing service TeamHealth should each receive shares of $20 million from Connecticut-based United Healthcare Insurance Co. and five subsidiaries, including the two dominant providers in the Las Vegas area: Sierra Health and Life Insurance Co., and Health Plan of Nevada Inc.
“They were able to get away with this until now,” plaintiffs’ attorney John Zavitsanos told the eight jurors who last week awarded $2.65 million in compensatory damages to plaintiffs Fremont Emergency Services (Mandavia) Ltd., Team Physicians of Nevada-Mandavia PC and the parent company of Ruby Crest Emergency Medicine.
Appeals are expected. Daniel Polsenberg, a Las Vegas attorney representing defendants, asked Clark County District Court Judge Nancy Allf to schedule post-verdict hearings. No dates were immediately set.
Although attorneys were prohibited in court from telling the jury who might end up paying monetary damages, a company statement after the verdict suggested the costs could be passed to others.
“Everyone agrees health care costs too much, and today’s decision only adds to the problem,” said the statement, provided by Dustin Clark, communications vice president for parent company United Healthcare.
“We will be appealing this decision immediately in order to protect our customers and members from private equity-backed physician staffing companies who demand unreasonable and anticompetitive rates for their services and drive up the cost of care for everyone,” the statement said.
Zavitsanos and Houston-based law partner Joseph Ahmad had asked for punitive damages of between $100 million and $1 billion from United Healthcare. They characterized the parent company, UnitedHealth Group, as a “Fortune 5” member, among the largest businesses in the nation.
“The only thing they understand is money,” Zavitsanos said, as he called for jurors to send a message that defendants also including United Healthcare Insurance Co., United Health Care Services Inc. and UMR Inc. harmed doctors, anesthesiologists and nurses.
Dr. Scott Scherr, emergency department director at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas and regional medical director of TeamHealth, testified during the monthlong trial. He expressed relief after the verdicts.
“A jury of my peers realized the value of emergency medicine in Nevada,” said Scherr, who headed trauma teams treating critically injured victims after the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in October 2017 at a Las Vegas Strip concert. Fifty-eight people died that night; hundreds were injured.
“I hope this sends a message to United Healthcare about the importance of our frontline workers,” Scherr said.