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UnitedHealth Group Inc. is fighting allegations in a Nevada state court that it shared responsibility for the actions of a Las Vegas doctor who allegedly gave his colonoscopy patients hepatitis C by mishandling an anesthetic.

An attorney for two women who sued the doctor, Dipak Desai, 62, a former gastroenterologist, allege that UnitedHealth's Health Plan of Nevada is partly at fault because it continued to renew contracts with the doctor despite knowing about his allegedly substandard medical practices.

Under Nevada law, an HMO must file annual reports showing it has reviewed the quality of health services provided to consumers covered by its plans.

The two women, Bonnie Brunson and Helen Meyer, said they contracted the disease after being treated by Desai in 2005.

Lawrence Scarborough, an attorney for Minnetonka-based United­Health, denied the allegations in court Thursday, saying the women's plight was the fault of Desai, who "cared more about money than about his patients' safety and health," Bloomberg News reported. UnitedHealth shouldn't be blamed, he said.

In a statement Friday, Health Plan of Nevada, an HMO that is Nevada's largest medical insurer and a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, said the case would set a dangerous precedent if insurers were found to be financially responsible for the actions of individual doctors.

"Making insurers liable for the criminal actions of independent doctors will force those insurers to seek intrusive, burdensome and expensive oversight of how care is delivered, which none of us want," the health plan said.

The trial in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas is an outgrowth of a Nevada hepatitis C outbreak linked to Desai's clinic. As a result of the outbreak in late 2007 and early 2008, Nevada officials notified 50,000 patients of potential risks.

Desai and two nurse anesthetists are facing second-degree murder charges over the death of a colonoscopy patient. A trial on those charges is scheduled for April. Desai also faces federal fraud charges.

Robert Eglet, an ­attorney for two women, Bonnie Brun­son and Helen Meyer, who contracted the disease after undergoing procedures performed by Desai in 2005, told jurors Thursday that the 2007-2008 episode "turned out to be the largest hepatitis C outbreak in United States history.''

"We are suing the HMO companies for violating the public safety rule requiring an HMO to make the health and safety of its insured members its primary concern," Eglet said.

In 1992, Eglet said, Health Plan of Nevada dropped Desai from the network because of quality-of-care concerns, only to reinstate him five years later.

'Unconscionable' conduct

Scarborough, the HMO's attorney, told jurors: "What was done to Mrs. Brunson and Ms. Meyer is horrible. It's unconscionable that a doctor who has taken an oath to first do no harm would intentionally disregard basic common-sense medical principles just to save a few dollars."

The trial is the first against the unit of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth over the hepatitis C outbreak linked to Desai's clinic.

Nevada juries already have handed down multimillion-dollar punitive awards against Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., which made the drug Propofol used by Desai. Three juries awarded colonoscopy patients more than $750 million in punitive damages over the drugmaker's decision to sell the anesthetic in oversized vials that could be reused.

Teva, based in Petach Tikva, Israel, agreed last year to pay $250 million to settle more than 80 lawsuits over Propofol sales.

Staff writer Steve Alexander and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.