HMO sued by woman with cancer

March 24, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

A Severn woman who is terminally ill with cancer has filed a $42 million civil suit against Columbia Medical Plan Inc., charging that the HMO's doctors misdiagnosed her illness.

Kathleen Heidecker and her husband, William Heidecker, contend in the suit that the health maintenance organization's doctors misread mammograms and failed to determine that she had cancerous lesions in one of her breasts.

The cancer was not detected until the 49-year-old woman went to another physician, but by then the disease had spread to her lymph nodes, leaving her with little chance for recovery, the suit says.

The Heideckers assert in the complaint that Mrs. Heidecker would have had a normal life span if the Columbia Medical Plan's doctors had properly diagnosed her illness.

"As a direct and proximate result of the negligence of [the company], Kathleen Heidecker will suffer a painful and untimely death," the suit says.

The Heideckers filed a three-count suit on March 7 in Howard Circuit Court against the HMO, charging the company with negligence, breach of contract and loss of marital relations.

The couple also has a complaint pending with the state Health Claims Arbitration Office against the doctors who treated Mrs. Heidecker at Patuxent Medical Group Inc. of Columbia.

J. Michael Sloneker, a Baltimore attorney for Columbia Medical Plan, countered that doctors representing the HMO properly interpreted Mrs. Heidecker's mammograms.

"The care that was rendered to her was the finest care available," Mr. Sloneker said.

Robert Suder, a Baltimore attorney for the Heideckers, said the case is one of a growing number of suits against HMOs, which provide all types of health care services for a single fee, usually through employers.

The Heidecker case is an example of the conflict facing most HMOs -- providing necessary services for customers while trying to keep costs down by limiting services, Mr. Suder said.

"The incentive for profit conflicts with the interest of the patient," the attorney said.

But Mr. Sloneker said there is nothing in the Heidecker case to support Mr. Suder's claims. "That's an effort to grab headlines," he said.

The suit charges that Columbia Medical Plan violated its responsibility to provide Mrs. Heidecker with adequate and competent medical care, particularly mammographies, biopsies and breast examinations.

Mrs. Heidecker was a patient at Patuxent Medical Group, a company that provides medical services for Columbia Medical Plan's customers. Patuxent is not named as a defendant in the suit.

The complaint says Mrs. Heidecker voiced concern about her left breast during an examination in 1986. A mammogram done at the time showed that Mrs. Heidecker could have had lesions in her breast.

Despite these findings and Mrs. Heidecker's concerns, the medical plan's staff did not examine the woman, order another mammogram or conduct a biopsy to determine her condition, the suit says.

Mrs. Heidecker had another mammogram in 1990, which showed signs of a tumor in her breast, the suit says. However, HMO officials never referred Mrs. Heidecker to a surgeon or ordered a biopsy. Instead, the suit says, another mammogram was ordered.

The third mammogram, done in May 1991, again suggested that the tumor in Mrs. Heidecker's breast was cancerous, but the HMO's doctors again did not pursue further tests or examinations, the suit says.

Mrs. Heidecker went to another doctor for tests in December 1991, the suit says. These tests revealed that the lesions in Mrs. Heidecker's breast were cancerous and the disease was spreading to other parts of her body.

The Heideckers have requested a jury trial. The case has been assigned to Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr., but no proceedings have been scheduled.

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