published Friday, April 8th, 2011

Reopening of raided clinics irks neighbors

Two clinics suspected of illegally dispensing prescription drugs in North Georgia have reopened weeks after police shut them down.

Doctor’s Health Center in Fort Oglethorpe and Advance Wellness in Calhoun are back in business, prompting criticism and concern from employees of nearby businesses and from others worried about the spread of so-called “pill mills” and the easy access to drugs that some clinics provide.

“I can’t believe they reopened so soon,” said Brandi Dean, an employee at South Cleaners, located two doors down from Doctor’s Health Center.

Doctor’s Health Center, a weight-loss clinic, was raided March 1. Advance Wellness, a pain management clinic, was raided March 16.

Some people criticized Calhoun officials at a recent City Council meeting after owners of Advance Wellness were given back their business license and an estimated 200,000 pills given to law enforcement by one of the clinic’s doctors.

The clinic’s attorney argued that the owners’ rights had been violated by the raid.

Law enforcement officials say this illustrates the difficulty of shutting down facilities that are popping up across Georgia to capitalize on the growing prescription abuse problem.

“It’s not as easy as people think. It takes months or years to shut one of these places down,” said Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency.

It wasn’t until two weeks after the raid at Advance Wellness that arrests were made, and the charges were unrelated to prescription drugs. Two guards were charged Wednesday with not having proper security and weapons licenses, police said.

Advance Wellness owners Bo and Jon Allen did not return messages seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Dr. Norman Neal of the Doctor’s Health Center hasn’t had an arraignment date set after being arrested March 1 at the clinic. He was charged with 24 counts of signing blank prescriptions and five counts of illegally possessing controlled substances.

Fort Oglethorpe officials say they don’t plan to look into the business itself because police were only investigating the doctor and not the clinic’s owner.

Michelle Turitto, owner of Doctor’s Health Center, said she is doing everything she can to run a legitimate business.

“Right now, I’m just trying to put it behind me and move on,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to do everything right.”

LOCAL SOLUTIONS

Calhoun police said they began getting complaints in January from employees at business near Advance Wellness on Curtis Parkway.

“Businesses were all complaining about zombies walking into walls and scaring the ladies that worked there,” Police Chief Garry Moss said when the clinic was shut down.

Kentucky police also reported to the department they were stopping people with carloads of pills and the prescriptions were from Calhoun, said police spokesman Lt. Tony Pyle.

When agents with the Georgia Composite Medical Board, which licenses and monitors state physicians, raided the pain clinic and seized the medical records, the city shut the place down as a nuisance.

But an attorney for the owners said that violated the law because the owners were not given a hearing before stripping their license, said City Attorney Bill Bailey.

While the business has been reopened, Calhoun officials say they are investigating options to shut down the clinic.

Cities such as Marietta and Kennesaw recently passed ordinances that would deny business licenses to pain clinics that dispense prescription drugs, Bailey said.

Calhoun officials are drafting a similar proposal, he said.

“Ours is the mirror image of Marietta,” he said.

UNFAIR TARGETING

After Catoosa County authorities and state agents raided the Doctor’s Health Center on Cloud Springs Road and hauled the doctor out in handcuffs March 1, Turitto said she didn’t see Neal illegally prescribing hydrocodone and Xanax to patients and didn’t notice heavy traffic in the parking lot.

Turitto also works at the prescription weight loss clinic.

Police and Fort Oglethorpe officials agree that the arrest was concentrated on the doctor and the clinic won’t be investigated at this time.

“I don’t know if that would be grounds for us to close them,” said Ron Goulart, Fort Oglethorpe city manager. “Obviously, if we started to get complaints, I would refer it to our police department.”

Turitto recently hired a new doctor to reopen the clinic, and said the Georgia Composite Medical Board ultimately is responsible for regulating the doctors.

“If [the board] has issued a license in the state, they are saying the doctor is fit to practice,” she said. “If there is a problem, they are the ones who should be aware.”

State officials argue that they are investigating cases, but their workload continues to pile up.

“Everybody wants to hurry up and close these places down,” Allen said. “[But] you’ve got to prove that there’s illegal medical practice going on.”

Police believe there could be as many as 50 pill mills in Georgia, with many of the owners having moved from Florida after officials in that state cracked down on the growing prescription-abuse problem.

Illegal operations are attracted to Georgia because it’s one of only seven states that doesn’t have a prescription monitoring program in place, Allen said.

But for the first time, legislation that would create an electronic database to monitor prescribing and dispensing drugs from Schedule II through V passed both the House and the Senate. Senate Bill 36 now must be reviewed and the amendments added in the House must be approved by the Senate before it can be signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal.

“I’m tickled to death about the way it came out,” said Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, the house sponsor of the bill.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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