By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Four thousand miles away across the Atlantic, Spanish police burst into a Madrid mansion and hauled out Alvaro's brother, Artemio. Inside, they found 19 million euros hidden beneath the floorboards near a hot tub.
Alvaro Lopez Tardon had been running one of Europe's largest, bloodiest drug rings, police say, and was tied to at least five murders back in Spain. His brother had moved millions in drugs before sending at least $26 million back to Miami for Alvaro to launder by snapping up condos and luxury cars, they allege. He was charged in July 2011 with five felony counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering. (He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney claims he was in fact in the luxury car business.)
What Sharon wanted, though, was simple: To see Tony Bosch punished for the role he played in sparking her near-death experience. Like so many other clients burned by clinics like Biogenesis, the deception that threw her life into disarray was simple. "I thought Tony Bosch was a medical doctor," she told Hill. "[I] believed that he was."
How to clean up the mess of Florida's anti-aging industry? One answer might come from a look at Florida's once-booming pill-mill industry. For nearly a decade, unregulated "pain clinics" boomed in the Sunshine State, thanks to regulations that let them operate freely so long as they didn't take insurance money.
The results would have been hilarious if they weren't so deadly. In Broward alone, more than 100 clinics had opened by 2009, selling more than 9 million pills a year in a county with just 1.8 million people. Nationwide, nearly 90 percent of all oxycodone sales were rung up in Florida. One chain was owned by the Bonanno Mob. Another handed out gas coupons so drug dealers from across the Northeast could drive down to stock up. And then there was the "Oxy Express," the weekly Fort Lauderdale charter that jetted down from West Virginia's rural Tri-State Airport just so pill pushers could buy up meds that cost $4.50 in Florida and resold for $80 to addicts in the hill counties.
Fast-forward four years and pill mills are on the decline across Florida. The biggest reason? Embarrassed by repeated reports of rampant abuse, the state Legislature finally closed loopholes and tightened regulations.
Would that same approach work with anti-aging clinics? "If we were allowed to inspect anti-aging clinics, you'd see an immediate reduction in illegal business," says Knox, the former DOH investigator. "Owners who shouldn't be in the health-care business wouldn't be around for long."
Florida's pill-mill fix has been far from perfect, but it did make it harder for the most obvious crooks to stay in the game. A 2009 bill signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist banned felons from owning clinics and barred clinics from selling pills onsite. Legislators also changed the rules so that even pain businesses that took cash only could still be inspected by the DOH.
As a result, drug deaths from oxy and other narcotics have been falling since 2010, and many of the shadiest clinics have left for more permissive states. The same might happen if rules were changed on anti-aging clinics. "You can do a few things right away that would help," says Mike Fasano, a former Florida state senator and representative who championed the pill-mill legislation until he left Tallahassee in 2012. "You can bar felons from owning clinics. You can inspect them and license them, and you can stop cash payments. You do those four things, and you'll close a lot of the unethical facilities right away."
But Fasano admits that it took years of fighting to get even modest reform on pill mills. And Scott and his allies have since retreated on those reforms by cutting funding for the prescription drug database and rolling back regulations. "Money talks in Tallahassee, just as it does in Washington and any other state capital," Fasano says.
New laws governing the anti-aging industry also wouldn't fix the Department of Health's internal problems. Current and former investigators say that as long as Scott's appointees actively discourage criminal charges against bad doctors and fakes like Bosch, not much is likely to change.
As long as Florida clinics continue pumping millions into local economies and physicians' and drug companies' pockets, there may be little taste in Tally for upending the status quo — even in the face of scandals like Biogenesis.
"There are huge profits being made off these drugs by the pharmaceutical companies," Dr. Perls says. "And the guys making money hand over fist on these products are turning a blind eye to the abuse."