THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 24, 2011 -
When police in March swooped down on the Total Medical Express of Orange Park, they seized $42,000 in cash and medical records --- and closed what was billed as a pill mill.
But two months later, the clinic’s owner has launched a pair of legal fights in Tallahassee that challenge the justification for the raid.
The reason: The clinic contends that the Department of Health did not properly approve what is known as a “registration” to do business. That lack of registration served as the legal basis for the Clay County raid.
Total Medical Express filed a lawsuit against the department in March and followed with an administrative-law case on Friday. The administrative case says Total Medical “was operating legally up to and including the time it was raided by law-enforcement agencies and publicly accused of operating as an ‘unlicensed’ pain clinic.’’
But the Department of Health, in a court filing, argues that it handled the registration issue properly and that the clinic was operating illegally. Also, the department alluded to the state’s wide-ranging problems with unscrupulous pain clinics supplying drugs to addicts from Florida and other states.
“Arguably, the raid and seizure best serve the public interests to help alleviate some of the ills from the epidemic problem of ‘pill mills’ located in the state of Florida,” the department said in the filing.
The Total Medical Express case is one of seven legal challenges that clinics have filed during the past two months because of registration disputes. The first case, involving a North Miami clinic, is scheduled to go before an administrative law judge next week, and hearings on others will be held in June and July.
Lawmakers approved the registration process to help crack down on storefront clinics that spread across the state in recent years. Some of those clinics have become notorious for drawing addicts from as far away as Kentucky and Ohio to get supplies of dangerous painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
The legal cases stem from a 2010 law that, in part, targeted ownership of the clinics. Under the law, pain-management clinics faced an Oct. 1, 2010, deadline to be owned by physicians or to be licensed as health clinics by the Agency for Health Care Administration.
In the seven cases, the Department of Health denied or revoked the clinics’ registrations because of those requirements. Documents filed in the state Division of Administrative Hearings indicate the disputes have taken months to play out.
Paul Sloan, a Southwest Florida clinic operator who is president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers, said cases that have taken this long probably do not involve a “simple paperwork error.’’
Sloan said he thinks the registration requirement of physician ownership or AHCA licensing is straightforward.
“It doesn’t leave a lot of gray area,’’ Sloan said.
But the Orange Park case involves a dispute about when paperwork was filed to show that a physician had become the new owner of Total Medical Express. The clinic contends the paperwork was filed Sept. 29 --- before the Oct. 1 deadline --- while the Department of Health says it didn’t receive the paperwork until Jan. 17.
If the paperwork was not received until January, the department had until mid-April to take action. And as a result, it argues in the court papers that the clinic was operating illegally at the time of the March 18 raid.
Aram Bloom, an attorney for Total Medical Express, said authorities did not have any other justification to raid the clinic, which he said did not face other allegations of wrongdoing.
“The only grounds for the raid (were) the lack of the registration number,’’ Bloom said. “That’s it.’’
But in a news release that the Clay County Sheriff’s Office posted March 18 on its website, it said an investigation had been ongoing for “several weeks” after complaints about people in out-of-state vehicles visiting the clinic.