Pain clinic doctor suspended after inquiry
By Scott Hiaasen
Posted: 4:06 p.m. Saturday, April 3, 2010
State health officials have suspended a doctor at a Fort Lauderdale pain clinic for dispensing tens of thousands of dangerous painkillers to patients -- including more than a dozen patients from Kentucky -- without medical justification.
The state Department of Health issued the emergency suspension order for Dr. Michael Lazzopina on March 26, after a probe accused him of ``egregious and inappropriate prescribing of potentially addictive and dangerous drugs.' In the 77-page complaint, health officials said they had to suspend Lazzopina immediately because he posed a danger to the public.
Lazzopina insists that he has done nothing wrong, and says state health officials fail to understand how pain management is practiced.
``You get convicted in a kangaroo court and you don't even get a chance to defend yourself,' said Lazzopina, 85, a former urologist turned pain and addiction specialist. ``Who are they to tell us what amount is right?'
The complaint accuses Lazzopina of malpractice for prescribing more than 100,000 pills to just 21 patients, including thousands of doses of dangerous painkillers such as methadone and oxycodone -- the latter prized on the black market.
In several cases, Lazzopina prescribed multiple painkillers during a single patient visit, but failed to document why the patients needed so many drugs, health officials said. One patient received 13,000 pills in a two-year period to treat back pain.
Investigators also scolded him for failing to document why his patients required anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, which are also commonly sold illegally. Lazzopina's reply: ``Half of America is on Xanax. It helps them.'
Fifteen of the 21 patient files examined by the health department were for residents of Kentucky, a prime area for illegal trafficking in painkillers, with drug couriers frequently traveling to South Florida pain clinics to obtain bogus prescriptions, narcotics investigators say.
Lazzopina said the clinic where he worked, the Fort Lauderdale Pain Relief Center at 201 W. Oakland Park Blvd., stopped accepting patients from Kentucky and other states after being warned by health officials last year. He said he believed some of these patients legitimately needed pain treatment, though he conceded many were likely trafficking pills.
``A lot of these people from Kentucky, I'm sure they were part of a gang or a band or whatever. We got rid of them,' Lazzopina said. The clinic turned in some suspected pill peddlers to police, he added.
The Fort Lauderdale Pain Relief Center is owned by Integra Health Services, a company founded by chiropractors Michael Rechter and David Romano. Last year, an attorney for Integra told The Miami Herald that the pair also owned an MRI facility in Kentucky, though Lazzopina said Friday he believed the Kentucky facility was a pharmacy.
The Integra attorney also told The Miami Herald last year that the Fort Lauderdale clinic did not treat patients who had been examined at Integra's Kentucky office.
Reached Friday, Rechter said he did not agree with Lazzopina's suspension, but declined to comment further.
In December, Lazzopina and the clinic were sued by the family of a patient, Benjamin Eiseman, who committed suicide in 2008 after being treated by the doctor. The suit accuses Lazzopina of turning Eiseman into a drug addict by over-prescribing painkillers. The doctor and clinic denied wrongdoing, and said Eiseman killed himself over marital problems.
Lazzopina said he plans to fight to retain his license, and said none of his patients complained about his treatment.
``These patients are not medically addicted. They are medically dependent. They need it for the pain,' Lazzopina said. ``The only thing that was keeping them going was the medication.'
Miami Herald Staff Writer