NU Online News Service, July 30, 7:06 p.m. – A federal judge in Miami has issued a ruling that lets lawyers who represent doctors proceed with a bundle of lawsuits against eight large managed care companies.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno issued an order that is scheduled to lift a previous “stay of discovery” Sept. 20. The managed care companies could fight Moreno’s move. But, if the order lifting the stay takes effect, the lawyers running the plaintiffs’ case will gain the ability to gather information from the companies named as defendants.

The ruling deals only with procedural issues and not with the merits of the plaintiffs’ allegations.

Lawyers for the doctors have accused the managed care companies of conspiring to violate provider network contracts by delaying payments and paying less than doctors were owed. At least one of the defendant companies, Aetna Inc., Hartford, issued a statement Tuesday contending that the allegations are without merit, but lawyers for the doctors hailed the ruling as a major victory.

The Law Offices of Archie Lamb L.L.C., Birmingham, Ala., the law firm of the lawyer who is serving as the co-lead counsel for the doctors, put out a press release about the ruling with the headline “U.S. District Court Clears Way For Landmark Suit Against Leading HMOs.”

“We can now look behind the curtain of secrecy and spotlight the abuses of HMOs,” Archie Lamb, the head of the firm, said in a statement about the ruling.

The suits now being heard in Miami are part of a wave of suits filed around the United States starting in late 1999. A panel of federal judges transferred some of the cases to the Miami district court, which was already handling a similar case of its own, in October 2000.

The Miami court is hearing a collection of suits filed on behalf of doctors and a collection of suits filed on behalf of managed care plan members on two separate tracks.

The defendants in the cases filed on behalf of the doctors are units of Aetna; Anthem Inc., Indianapolis; CIGNA Corp., Philadelphia; Coventry Health Care Inc., Bethesda, Md.; Humana Inc., Louisville, Ky.; PacifiCare Health Systems Inc., Santa Ana, Calif.; UnitedHealth Group Inc., Minnetonka, Minn.; and WellPoint Health Networks Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif.