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Clinic's bold advertising drew patients and investigators

The clinic blatantly advertised easy access to prescription drugs, authorities say.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published October 2, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - More than $90,000 in debt, an obscure local chiropractor named Alex Petro declared bankruptcy eight years ago.

By this May, Petro's finances improved so much that he bought a $1.9-million, 12th floor penthouse in Trump Tower Tampa.

The source of his newfound wealth: the Doctors Urgent Care Walk-In Clinic.

A large banner outside the clinic Petro operated at 4900 33rd Ave. N offered liberal access to the narcotic oxycodone and the antidepressant Valium, among other drugs. So many patients came seeking prescriptions that lines snaked into the parking lot, near a sign that said "Auto Accidents Seen Immediately."

Petro's clinic drew a large clientele with a simple formula: It plainly advertised access to narcotics and, for a fee, allowed unauthorized people to freely give prescriptions to patients without proper examinations, according to investigators.

But the brazen advertising that spurred the clinic's success may have also led to its downfall.

Ten people have been arrested since May as part of a long-running Pinellas County Sheriff's Office investigation into the clinic called "Operation Pain Relief." The Sheriff's Office has said prescriptions given at Doctors Urgent Care contributed to the death of at least one patient who overdosed on painkillers.

Jay Hebert, a lawyer representing Petro, 42, said the clinic was now closed and that he could not say more because of the legal proceedings.

"It was blatant," said Capt. Michael Platt, the head of narcotics investigations at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "We had numerous complaints from the community, from the professional community, and other medical professional people who said this is out of control."

* * *

Petro came to Florida soon after graduating from Life College now Life University in Georgia in 1996. Before long, he was in financial trouble.

He made $1,200 a month as a chiropractor, records show. But he racked up many thousands more in credit card bills, owing at least $10,000 to American Express, nearly $16,000 on a Citibank preferred gold Visa and $7,000 on a gold MasterCard.

His total debts by the time he filed for bankruptcy in August 1998: more than $90,000.

Four years later, Petro set up the Doctors Urgent Care Walk-In Clinic. State records list him as the clinic's registered agent in 2002, and the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates health care clinics, says it licensed it in 2004. The state, which requires clinics to renew their licenses every two years, says it took no disciplinary action against the clinic in that time.

The clinic soon began drawing hordes of customers as word spread that its employees dispensed prescriptions for drugs such as OxyContin and Soma without asking many questions, the Sheriff's Office said.

"If you're not taking time to do exams or just doing limited exams, you can run these people in and run them out," Platt said. "It's heaven for them."

It also was lucrative for Petro. By 2005, he spoke freely to reporters about his purchase of a Trump Tower penthouse. He also owned a $900,000 home with a pool, records show.

* * *

Patients who wandered into the clinic seeking treatment for back pain soon began to tell Sheriff's Office investigators distressingly similar stories.

One woman told investigators how she went to the clinic seeking a diagnosis and treatment for neck pain. Instead, she said, she dealt with a physician's assistant who cut her off while she recounted her symptoms and told her she would "give her some painkillers, as in Vicodin, and some muscle relaxers, as in Soma."

Jason Fulford, 33, was another patient who went to the clinic after seeing flyers advertising painkillers. He obtained prescriptions for Xanax, oxycodone and Percocet, even though his relatives say he suffered from bipolar disorder and high blood pressure.

He died in January after overdosing on the pills he obtained with prescriptions from the clinic, authorities say. His brother, Fred C. Fulford, 35, told the Times that his brother "didn't have to show proof of anything. He had no X-rays, no note from a doctor. He had nothing."

The investigation took months. When Sheriff's Office investigators and agents from other law enforcement agencies posed as patients, they said, they found the stories were true.

Clinic employees handed over prescriptions without conducting exams or even questioning the undercover agents about their prior medical history, Sheriff's Office investigative records show. One "examination" took six minutes.

While detectives were waiting at the clinic another time, they wrote in a report, one patient "spontaneously began talking about his experience at Doctors Urgent Care. He made comments about what a great country this was and how easy it was to get pain medication."

On May 22, the Sheriff's Office searched the clinic offices and arrested six people, including Petro, on charges such as practicing medicine without a license and trafficking in narcotics.

Platt said that several patients tried to break through police tape so they could get prescriptions.

Since then, three other people connected to the clinic have been arrested on various charges. The Sheriff's Office also searched the Pinellas Park-based G&H Pharmacy, where authorities say many clinic patients exchanged their prescriptions for drugs.

For now, the case against Petro and other clinic employees is working its way through the legal system. The clinic itself closed in May, around the time that authorities searched its offices. Its license to operate expired Sept. 6.

The large banner advertising painkillers is gone now. The parking lot of the small, tan-colored building is empty, and a small sign states: "Closed to Remodel."

On the front door, someone has posted a note.

It reads: "These premises are under video surveillance which the police are viewing. Anyone on the property will be arrested for trespassing. This is your only warning!"

Times reporter Chris Tisch and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified October 1, 2006, 23:51:12]


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