The family of a Las Vegas man who was denied health insurance coverage for a lung cancer treatment, then later died, said Friday they hope a $200 million civil verdict issued by a Clark County jury against their health insurance provider prompts significant change.
“Maybe this won’t happen to the next person,” Sandy Eskew, wife of the late Bill Eskew, said Friday. “Maybe they will change the way they do things. They just can’t be doing this. They don’t know more than the doctors. It’s just wrong.”
Bill Eskew’s loved ones and his family’s two attorneys, Matthew L. Sharp and Doug Terry, said Eskew’s health issues started in summer 2015. He was playing golf with his son and a friend in northwest Las Vegas when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his arm upon hitting his first shot of the day.
“He said, ‘I think I dislocated my elbow,’” his son, William Eskew Jr., recalled.
“He started sweating,” his son said. “He was in pain. I ran and got my truck, I drove it down. I got him in the truck, and I rushed him over to the hospital.”
What Bill Eskew thought was a dislocated elbow, however, turned out to be far worse.
“They took X-rays and they said, ‘No, it is a pathologic fracture from lung cancer,’ ” Sandy Eskew said. “We did not know he had lung cancer. It was a nightmare.”
Bill Eskew was committed to fighting for his life, but around the same time the family’s health insurance provider announced it would no longer be offering private health insurance. So, the family had to find a new provider by Jan. 1. Sandy Eskew took a third job to pay roughly $1,100 a month for a policy with Sierra Health and Life. She informed an insurance broker before the policy was secured that Bill had lung cancer and that the family was interested in pursuing a treatment known as proton therapy if he was a candidate.
The proton therapy treatment ultimately was recommended by Eskew’s doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas because it can target the location of the cancer, Terry said, while causing less damage to a patient’s healthy tissues. Despite the recommendation, the coverage was denied by Sierra Health.
”He was devastated,” Sandy Eskew said. “He couldn’t understand why an insurance company would know more than his doctor…He would ask me that question every day.”
The family said they had no choice but to proceed with another type of radiation treatment, which caused major damage to Bill’s esophagus. What followed was a year of suffering because Bill could not swallow food or water without immense pain. Bill died in 2017, roughly a year after his treatment started.
“It was awful,” said Bill’s daughter, Tyler Eskew. “We watched him wither away.”
Provider to appeal
Sandy Eskew said she had inquired about her new health insurance policy prior to securing it.
“They knew I was looking at proton therapy if he was a candidate,” Sandy said.
After her husband’s death, she hired her attorneys to find out how Sierra Health could have denied the coverage. Sharp and Terry said they filed a lawsuit, then learned that Sierra Health had what Terry called a corporate medical policy that dictated it would not cover proton therapy for lung cancer, claiming it was not medically necessary.
“Sandy did not know about this when she bought the policy,” Terry said.
The family sued in 2019 and won an initial $40 million verdict this month in District Court in Las Vegas. The civil jury then awarded another $160 million in punitive damages against Sierra Health in the courtroom of District Judge Nadia Krall.
Sierra Health is a UnitedHealthcare company, which is owned by UnitedHealth Group. The company plans to appeal, a spokeswoman said.
“We are disappointed by the jury’s verdict,” UnitedHealthCare spokeswoman Maria Gordon Shydlo said in an email. “The verdict and damages awarded do not reflect the facts of the case or the laws that apply here,” she said.
Tyler Eskew said her father was a loving man who was all about family. He cherished his grandchildren and enjoyed living in Las Vegas. She and her brother said they hope that the family’s litigation leads to change at Sierra Health.
“That’s why you get insurance,” Sandy said. “So you can have peace of mind. They are supposed to take care of you.”