One of Kenny Chatman’s top doctors gets maximum sentence

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate, in 2015.

A doctor who treated patients at Kenny Chatman’s notorious drug treatment center was sentenced to 10 years in prison today.

Dr. Donald Willems, an osteopath, was the medical director for Chatman’s Reflections Treatment Center, in Broward County, from October 2015 to May 2016.

He admitted in his plea deal to signing off on drug tests and unnecessary allergy and DNA tests, which helped Chatman turn his drug treatment center into a multi-million dollar business.

Although Willems was supposed to be treating the patients at Reflections, he wasn’t monitoring the results of their drug tests, he admitted. If he was, he would have noticed that most of the patients were not sober and their drug tests were actually being submitted by other people, including Reflections workers.

‘Kenny Chatman kidnapped me’: Read one woman’s human trafficking story

The 10-year sentence was the maximum he could have received after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud.

HEROIN: Killer of a generation

Willems was one of two doctors arrested for working with Chatman, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison last month. Chatman admitted to turning some of his female patients into prostitutes at his sober homes in Palm Beach County. Even in South Florida’s widely corrupt drug treatment industry, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marie Villafaña called Chatman “the most dangerous” player in it.

>> HEROIN: Killer of a generation

Federal prosecutors say the other doctor, Dr. Joaquin Mendez, has violated the conditions of his release on bond, and they asked last week to arrest him again. Mendez is the only one of the eight defendants – which includes Chatman’s wife, Laura – to not take a plea deal.

Willems is also facing four-year-old state charges of racketeering and illegally providing oxycodone for his work at a pill mill in Broward County.

Doctor charged in Kenny Chatman case caught prescribing opioids

Kenneth Chatman walks into Reflections, his treatment center in Margate, in 2015.

Federal prosecutors are trying to get a doctor who worked for notorious treatment center operator Kenny Chatman back behind bars after they say he was caught prescribing the opioids Oxycontin and fentanyl to Medicare patients.

Dr. Joaquin Mendez, facing charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering and health care fraud in January, was out on $100,000 bond. As part of the conditions of his release, he was not allowed use his Medicare number to “provide any services,” according to a court filing on Friday. His Medicare number was also revoked after he was released.

But federal prosecutors say that between February and May, Mendez treated at least 188 Medicare patients, and he wrote more than 100 prescriptions for controlled substances that included oxycodone, Oxycontin, clonazepam and fentanyl.

‘Kenny Chatman kidnapped me’: Read one woman’s human trafficking story

Prosecutors wrote that agents learned Mendez was dropping in on assisted living facilities and asking if anybody wanted to see a doctor. He would then either write the patient a prescription or refer them to a home health agency.

A judge will decide whether he will be arrested again.

HEROIN: Killer of a generation

Mendez is the only co-defendant who has not taken a plea deal in the massive fraud case against Kenny Chatman and his treatment centers, Reflections, in Broward County, and Journey to Recovery, in Lake Worth.

Read The Post’s first story on Chatman: Police reports link sober home operator to prostitution

In addition to fraud charges, Chatman admitted to turning some of his female patients into prostitutes at his Palm Beach County sober homes. Last month, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison and forced to register as a sex offender. His lawyers said he will appeal the sentence.

Prosecutors say Mendez ordered unnecessary urine drug tests for patients at Reflections and Chatman’s other treatment center, Journey to Recovery, in Lake Worth.

Mendez would be the second doctor in the case to get caught violating the conditions of his release. Dr. Donald Willems went back to jail after police discovered he was working in a drug treatment center and prescribing drugs he was not authorized to prescribe.

Willems, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud, will be sentenced today in Miami. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Palm Beach Shores settles case of dispatcher harassed by cop

Palm Beach Shores is paying $150,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former dispatcher who claimed she’d been repeatedly sexually harassed by former town police officer Charles Hoeffer.

For the town, it’s the latest fallout relating to Hoeffer, whom the town paid $135,000 last year to leave after he was accused of raping a blind woman twice. The town is being sued by that woman and another who claims Hoeffer groped and harassed her.

Former Palm Beach Shores officer Charles Hoeffer attends an arbitration hearing on May 5, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The dispatcher, Lori Saridakis, worked under Hoeffer’s supervision while she worked for the town. According to the 2015 lawsuit, he made crude comments to her, including asking her, “When are you gonna let me get some of that?” He would also grope himself in front of her, she said.

Ten months on paid leave: Officer faces assault allegations

11 women accuse cop of assault, rape or harassment

After she went to the town manager with her complaints, she was fired. The town said her position was simply eliminated.

“I’m happy it’s over for her,” Saridakis’ attorney, Arthur Schofield, said Thursday. “It was a long fight, and I’m proud of her for fighting, which other women couldn’t do or didn’t have the courage to do.”

At least one other dispatcher complained that she’d been harassed by Hoeffer. Saridakis could not be reached for comment.

The town’s insurance carrier, which is paying the settlement, agreed to settle just before the case went to trial. The settlement is not an admission of guilt.

The allegations against Hoeffer were first exposed in a 2015 Palm Beach Post article that revealed 11 different women had accused him of assault, rape or harassment over his three decades in policing with three different departments.

Last week, the national news site The Daily Beast profiled Hoeffer and his history in a lengthy exposé.

Schofield said he deposed Hoeffer for the lawsuit. He called it an “eye-opening experience,” although he didn’t uncover any new details about the officer’s history.

 

What happens to addicts if Obamacare and the Drug Czar get the boot?

Last week was not a good week for addicts. 

The House vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – could be catastrophic for those with substance use disorders. The Senate still must approve it but provisions in the House version could allow insurance companies to refuse to cover and charge higher premiums for pre-existing conditions.

If you are an addict that’s been to rehab six or seven times – each time covered by insurance because of Obamacare – you have a pre-existing condition – big time. States would have the option to waive an Obamacare mandate that prohibits insurance companies from charging higher rates to those with pre-existing conditions. 

 That means you are going to pay more – probably a lot more – for insurance because you have a very expensive, pre-existing condition (addiction) that has a high rate of recurrence (relapse.)

But don’t worry. If you can’t get insurance because your state opted out of Obamacare’ pre-existing condition mandate, you will be able to purchase insurance from your state’s high risk pool. Guess how much THAT will cost. Bigly.

The House plan also allows states to opt out of another Obamacare mandate that insurance companies must cover essential, basic benefits like maternity care, preventive tests and, you guessed it, substance use disorders. State’s will be allowed to set their own standards. 

So, getting covered for your substance use disorder will depend on where you live and how strong the insurance lobby is in your state, 

I have more bad news.

The Trump Administration’s proposal to cut funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy from $388 million to $24 million – effectively dismantles the ONDCP – also known as the office of the Drug Czar. POLITICO reported the proposal last week, along with comments from Rafael Lemaitre, formerly a senior official with the drug policy office across three administrations. 

“These moves fly in the face of President Trump’s promise to address the nation’s opioid epidemic,” said Lemaitre. “This is an epidemic that steals as many lives as the Vietnam War took during the entire conflict, and Trump’s moves remove some of the most effective tools.”

Trump strategy to fulfill his campaign promise to fix the opioid crisis was outlined in an executive order that created a temporary White House opioids commission led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. 

The drug commission is part of the new White House Office of American Innovation, chaired by the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law Jared Kushner, Under Kushner, the office is responsible for overhauling the federal bureaucracy. 

According to a report by PBS Newshour, the commission will:

  • Identify existing federal dollars to combat drug addiction, including opioids;
  • Assess availability and access to addiction treatment centers and overdose reversal and identify underserved areas;
  • Measure the effectiveness of state prescription drug monitoring programs;
  • Evaluate public messaging campaigns about prescription and illegal opioids, and identify best practices for drug prevention.

The commission must file its report by Oct. 1. Then it will disband. No one knows what – if anything – will replace it. 

Can Negron get sober home marketing bill on the calendar in time?

Hours after declaring the opioid overdose epidemic a public health crisis, Gov. Rick Scott said he was not aware that a bill targeting corruption in the drug treatment industry had not been called up for a final vote in the Senate.

Palm Beach County chief assistant state attorney Al Johnson, left, and State Attorney Dave Aronberg announce that a grand jury has issued 15 recommendations to combat the opioid crisis in Palm Beach County on December 12, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Although SB 788 unanimously passed its four committee stops and its House companion, HB 807, cleared the floor on Monday with a unanimous vote, Senate leaders have not scheduled the bill for a final vote.

Unknown is whether Republican Senate President Joe Negron has or will act on the bill. 

The Senate’s refusal to hear the bill has the bill’s drafters and backers shaking their heads and scrambling. The halt in the bill’s trajectory is also baffling because it is the byproduct of the legislature’s own directive to tighten laws governing the drug treatment industry.

Last year lawmakers gave Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg $250,000 to investigate corruption and propose legislative solutions.

Aronberg created the Sober Home Task Force and appointed Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson to lead efforts to prosecute and propose legislation. The task force has made 21 arrests since October. Johnson held more than a dozen public meetings to craft new legislation.

Those proposals were drafted into HB 807 and SB 788.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Johnson, who is in Tallahasee with Aronberg.

 

 

 

Florida Surgeon General: Why Zika declared emergency but not heroin crisis

Florida Surgeon General said she has not ruled out declaring a public health emergency for the opioid epidemic.

Dr. Celeste Philip said a public health emergency declaration must be linked to an action plan to address the emergency. That, she added, is why the four-stop listening tour she is on with other top agency officials is so important. Hearing how the hardest hit communities are dealing with the crisis will help in creating that plan, she said.

“Nothing is off the table,” Dr. Philip said in an interview after the second stop on the tour in Sarasota on Tuesday. Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi ordered the tour in response to rising death rates and calls for him to declare a public health crisis.

Florida Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip

Asked why she quickly issued a public health emergency when mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus were discovered in Florida, she said it was because it was easier to draft a plan to prevent spread of the virus: Kill mosquitoes that carry it. 

The opioid crisis is much more complex, she said: “We’re dealing with two different kinds of situations. The opioid crisis is very complex.”

In her comments in West Palm Beach and Sarasota, Dr. Philip emphasized the need to educate physicians and medical students about the hazards of prescribing opioids and alternative protocols to manage pain. In particular, pressing medical schools to develop curriculum about addiction and pain management – topics that were barely addressed during her medical training. 

The tour began Monday at the West Palm Beach Police Department, where Dr. Philip, DCF Sec. Mike Carrol and over a dozen other state officials were greeted by protesters demanding action. About 250 recovering addicts, advocates and friends and family of overdose victims crammed into a meeting room at the department.

By contrast, Tuesday’s meeting in Sarasota was quiet. No protests or cat-calls from the crowd of about 100 during the 2-hour meeting. The group headed to Orlando for another meeting on Tuesday afternoon. The final meeting is in Jacksonville on Wednesday. 

Chatman defendant: Feds, state target sober homes together

IMG_0237

A recruiter for Kenny Chatman‘s drug treatment centers says his cooperation with state and local investigators led to about a dozen arrests.

A new federal court filing for Michael Bonds shows how defendants in several cases are being used against each other, as well as cooperation between federal and state officials trying to crack down on South Florida’s corruption-plagued sober home industry. Bonds’ attorney, Paul Walsh of West Palm Beach, said in a filing that he expects federal officials will also ask for leniency in the case because of Bonds’ cooperation.

Walsh wrote that in exchange for Bonds’ cooperation, Bonds and his wife have feared for their safety because of implied threats, “including a call from an individual whom Bonds provided information about, telling Bonds that he would ‘get his.'”

Bonds pleaded guilty in February to taking $240,000 from Chatman for referring patients to Chatman’s treatment centers. Chatman, Bonds and four other associates were arrested Dec. 21. The filing says Bonds has been helping investigators since August, and “has continuously provided assistance whenever called upon and as needed by the government.”

How far did that cooperation go? The filing says Bonds has been working with officials, including a Delray Beach Police Department investigator, to yield “results that are useful to the government.” A grammatically troubled sentence says he offered help on people in the recovery industry, and “This information led to prior to the arrest of at least nine individuals in State court and several individuals in this [federal] matter.”

Bonds is scheduled to be sentenced at 10 a.m. Monday in federal district court in West Palm Beach. He had been running Redemption Sober House Inc., and was getting about $500 a week for each patient he supplied to Chatman.

Chatman is scheduled to be sentenced next month. He admitted in federal court that he’d turned patients into prostitutes and, when they were supposed to be recovering from drugs, fueled their addiction.

While immediate associates of Chatman have been prosecuted in federal court, the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has arrested at least 20 people for prosecution in state courts.

New charges in Kenny Chatman case: Evidence “massive”

 

New charges have been filed against a doctor who worked for Kenneth Chatman’s notorious sober home operation, where women addicts were prostituted, held against their will and allowed to continue using drugs, according to court records.

The new charges against Dr. Joaquin Mendez include conspiracy to commit health care fraud, giving a false statement relating to health-care fraud and money laundering.

Another doctor charged in the case, Dr. Donald Willems, is expected to appear in federal court this afternoon. Federal prosecutors want Willems bond revoked. They say he continued to work in a drug treatment center and continued prescribing drugs he was not authorized to prescribe – activities prohibited as a condition of his bond.IMG_0237.PNG

Mendez is one of two doctors charged with ordering unnecessary urine drug tests for addicts enrolled in Chatman’s treatment centers, Reflections and Journey.

Chatman and several alleged co-conspirators also operated numerous sober homes, including Stay’n Alive, Redemption Sober House and Total Recovery Sober Living, and an unnamed facility at 962 W. 43rd St., West Palm Beach.

All the facilities were in business to provide safe and drug-free residences for people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, an industry fueled by a nationwide heroin epidemic.

But federal prosecutors, who have been investigating the industry in South Florida for more than two years, say they were more akin to fraud machines that engaged in human trafficking.

Three of the seven charged in the case have pleaded guilty. Court papers filed be a federal prosecutor say Chatman and his wife, Laura, also plan to plead guilty.

Dr. Mendez wants a trial, according to court papers.

Mendez attorney recently filed court papers asking for more time to prepare for trial, citing a “massive” amount of records accumulated as part of Operation Thoroughbred – the name of the federal task force investigating corruption in South Florida’s drug treatment industry.

Richard Lubin, a veteran attorney with a career full of high-profile cases, wrote in court papers that the amount of evidence against his client is more than he has seen in 42-years of practice.

How much evidence?

326 gigabytes of digital records copied onto an encrypted hard drive.
236,245 digital files organized into 8,307 folders.
16,064 records in 133 files of patient data
1,719 patient case files with as many as 600 pages in each file.
30 FBI taped interviews
225 boxes of paper documents that prosecutors say will take 6-8 weeks to copy

All the facilities were in business to provide safe and drug-free residences for people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, an industry fueled by a nationwide heroin epidemic.

But federal prosecutors, who have been investigating the industry in South Florida for more than two years, say they were more akin to fraud machines that engaged in human trafficking. These are the first charges to be filed from the federal probe.

Will telemedicine work for treating addiction?

The next big thing in drug treatment: Telemedicine.

Among the topics that kicked off the annual meeting of the Addiction Industry Executive Summit in Naples on Monday was using the internet to remotely treat recovering addicts.

Telemedicine allows doctors and therapists to communicate with patients via live video – similar to Skype or Facetime. According to the American Medical Association, 4 out of 5 office visits could be handled without a trip to see the doctor.
Telemedicine is already used to treat common illnesses such as bronchitis, pink eye and urinary tract infections.

But can – and should – it be used for treating addiction? Using  telemedicine to treat drug addicts provides unique obstacles for patients, treatment providers and insurance companies.

Telemedicine will allow recovering addicts who live in rural areas, who have no transportation or have child care issues to interact with their treatment team. On the flip side, they won’t be able to use their remote location, lack of transportation or child care as excuses to avoid seeing their treatment providers.

Because psychiatrists and addiction specialists are in such short supply and must be licensed to prescribe buprenorphine – a drug used to wean addicts off opioids – telemedicine could enable more addicts to be treated with buprenorphine.

However, doctors and therapists won’t be able to get a true picture of their patient’s condition without costly video equipment that captures more than just the face of a addict – who may attempt to disguise a relapse.

“I have seen people trying to do it on laptop or itty bitty webcam,” said Dr. Corey Waller, Senior Medical Director for Education and Policy at the Camden Coalition for Healthcare Providers in New Jersey. “If I can’t see patient I can’t see what’s going on. He could be flipping me off under the table.”

Waller, a keynote speaker at the conference, estimates a the cost of a video and audio system that can provide effective and safe treatment at $10,000.

The biggest hurdle is not the cost but licensing requirements. Some states require physicians practicing telemedicine to be licensed in the state where their patient lives. That means a doctor licensed in Florida would not be able to treat a patient via telemedicine in these states without an additional license.

Besides the hardware and licensing, practicing telemedicine requires enhanced security to comply with HIPPA privacy laws. Common live steam platforms, such as Skype, are not secure.

Lisa Merconchini, a Boca Raton clinical psychologist created a secure, web-based telemedicine platform. Her company, Premier Telehealth, uses copyrighted, encrypted software to protect patients’s privacy. Merconchini was the only vendor at the conference offering a telemedicine treatment platform.

Merconchini sees telemedicine as particularly valuable for addicts after they leave residential treatment programs and return to their home and jobs.

“I think typically when they leave treatment they fall out of aftercare,” Merconchini said. “This allows them to stay engaged and follow aftercare.”

Without telemedicine, addicts often must find a new treatment team when they leave rehab. Beyond what is in their medical records,  new doctors and therapists know little about the addict.

Telemedicine enables addicts to continue working with doctors and therapists they already know. Because the treatment team’s experience with a recovering addict, they are more likely to identify warning signs of a relapse.

“You already have an established rapport,” Merconchini said. “Because you have had that in-person care, you are familiar with non-verbal cues.”

Florida is among a handful of states that has no laws governing how telemedicine can be practiced. In 2016 lawmakers passed a bill that established a Telehealth Advisory Council within the Agency for Health Care Administration to begin looking at how telemedicine should be practiced in Florida.

No legislation about telemedicine has been filed for the legislative session that begins in March.

Insurance companies want to know how effective telemedicine is but do reimburse for telemedicine.
As of May 2015, 24 states and the District of Columbia have mandated that private insurance plans reimburse for telemedicine at rates equal to an in-person consultation. Forty-eight state Medicaid programs also reimburse for some form of telemedicine via live video.

The question now is, will drug treatment providers use it? Some say they would not be comfortable using it in early recovery. However, it could be a valuable tool for follow up care and therapy after an addict leaves treatment and goes home. It also provides a continuity of care, so the addict does not need to find new doctors and therapists back home.

Origins Behavioral Healthcare uses telemedicine but not to treat addicts, said Origins CEO Drew Rothermel. IInstead, Origins uses telemedicine to enable its own doctors to conference in real time across its locations in Florida and Texas.
“There is a vested interest for Florida to have as robust telemedicine as possible,” Rothermel said. “So much of Florida treatment is medical tourism.”

Sober home report calls for more regulation, stricter enforcement

The Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force overseen by State Attorney Dave Aronberg has submitted its final report to the Legislature.

As The Post reported on Dec. 20, the report calls for more oversight of sober homes, licensing of so-called “marketers” and enforcement measures to help police.

“Our primary goal is to protect the vulnerable patients who have been abused by unscrupulous actors in the industry,” Aronberg said. “Right now, there is no oversight of recovery residences, and very little oversight of the providers.  Rogue operators are able to thrive in the current environment.”

The report, a six-month effort, can be found on the state attorney’s web site under the sober homes task force link. 

The Legislature gave Aronberg $275,000 for the three-pronged effort, which included a law enforcement arm that has made 11 arrests focused on patient brokering, in which treatment centers pay sober homes for providing a steady stream of patients.

Sober homes, which have proliferated under a nationwide heroin epidemic, are supposed to be safe places where recovering addicts support one another while learning to remain sober. Most go to treatment centers for medical services where they are tested to make sure they are still sober.

Fraud has undermined the industry in Palm Beach County and elsewhere as insurance companies are soaked for huge charges for largely unnecessary drug tests.

The task force continues, with its next meeting at 1 p.m. Monday at the West Palm Beach Police Department on Clematis Street.