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Teen's family to sue Cigna

The girl died hours after the Philadelphia insurer ended its refusal to pay for a liver transplant.

LOS ANGELES - A 17-year-old California girl died just hours after her health insurer, Cigna Corp., reversed its decision and agreed to pay for a liver transplant.

Nataline Sarkisyan's family is now accusing Cigna of contributing to her death, and plans to sue, the family's attorney, Mark Geragos, said. The insurer "maliciously killed her" because it did not want to bear the expense of her transplant and post-operative care, Geragos said.

Sarkisyan died Thursday about 6 p.m. at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. She had been in a vegetative state for weeks, her mother said.

Geragos said he plans to ask the district attorney to press murder or manslaughter charges against Cigna HealthCare.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, said it would be inappropriate to comment on Geragos' request until he submitted supporting evidence.

Cigna officials did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.

Sarkisyan had been battling leukemia, and received a bone-marrow transplant from her brother. She developed a complication that caused her liver to fail.

Doctors at UCLA determined she needed a transplant and sent a letter to Cigna Corp.'s Cigna HealthCare on Dec. 11. The insurance company denied payment for the transplant, saying the procedure was experimental and outside the scope of coverage.

The insurer reversed the decision Thursday as about 150 teenagers and nurses rallied outside of its office. But Sarkisyan died hours later.

"They took my daughter away from me," said her father, Krikor Sarkisyan, who appeared at the news conference with his 21-year-old son, Bedros.

Despite its reversal, Cigna wrote in an e-mail statement released to reporters before Sarkisyan died that there was a lack of medical evidence showing the procedure would work in her case.

"Our hearts go out to Nataline and her family as they endure this terrible ordeal," the statement said. "Cigna HealthCare has decided to make an exception in this rare and unusual case, and we will provide coverage should she proceed with the requested liver transplant."

The UCLA doctors had written that patients in situations similar to Sarkisyan's who undergo transplants have a six-month survival rate of about 65 percent.

One of the doctors, Robert Venick, would not comment on Sarkisyan's case when reached at his office yesterday.

In a statement yesterday, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee criticized Cigna for not acting sooner.

Its executive director, Rose Ann DeMoro, accused Cigna and insurers in general of having "a stranglehold on our health. Their first priority is to make profits for their shareholders - and the way they do that is by denying care."