An unlicensed clinic in Broward County managed to operate under the radar of county officials for months, even after inquiring about a business permit and being depicted as a pill mill on an evening news exposé.
In July, Broward zoning officials got a visit from Gordon Berman, who said he wanted to open a doctor's office in a modest, two-story office building in Hillsboro Pines. The county agreed to set up a "site plan meeting," a required step for anyone seeking to open a new medical practice. But according to neighbors, the clinic, called VIP Family Health, was already open and doing a brisk business -- in pain pills.
Jack Tokatlian, who owns the shoe repair shop next door, says the clinic opened the week after Fourth of July, and he quickly became irritated by customers loitering in the parking lot. Meanwhile, the county didn't know the business was open, says Zoning Code Enforcement Supervisor Pat Saba: "I tried to call them back on July 20 to set up an appointment," says Saba. "Nobody answered."
The site plan meeting finally took place. Saba says county officials met with Berman, who came on behalf of J. A. Danton, a doctor operating the clinic. They told him that he'd need to make some interior modifications and provide more parking in order to receive a Certificate of Use allowing him to run a medical practice.
That was August 18. Two weeks earlier, on August 5, Channel 7 had aired a "Carmel on the Case" segment exposing the business as a pain clinic serving out-of-state clients. Saba found out about that report later, when he Googled the clinic's name. "If I had seen that, we would have taken action [against the clinic] sooner," he says.
In fact, it was the clinic's landlord who took the first action against the owners, evicting VIP Family Health from the two-story office building. But the company didn't travel far.
Standing in front of his shoe-repair store on September 24, Tokatlian pointed down the block to a low-slung building on the other side of a daycare center: the new location of VIP Family Health. One of the offices didn't have any signs or lights in the windows, but the parking lot was packed. Down the street, a Broward deputy sipped a soda in his cruiser, watching the driveway.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
When the words "pain clinic" were mentioned, the deputy laughed. "No comment," he said. "But hang around for a while and look at the cars going in and out of this place. That's all I'm going to say."
Earlier that day, a county inspector had finally made it up to the old clinic, to find it empty. "He saw all the activity over at the new location," says Saba. "BSO was there, and they made some arrests. We gave the clinic a notice of violation for operating a business without a certificate of use." Calls to VIP Family Health requesting comment have gone unanswered.
"To cease business is their only option at this point," continues Saba. He notes that even if the clinic had complied with licensing requirements from the get-go, it wouldn't have been allowed to dispense pain pills. In unincorporated areas, the county is in charge of enforcing a moratorium on all new pain clinics until new state regulations go into effect Friday.
"We don't know what to do" in cases like this, said Broward employee Jeff Day, speaking to the county's Pain Management Clinic Task Force last week. "We need some ammunition."