WESLEY CHAPEL — Outside an upscale office complex tucked behind a thrift store, a beefy man in black patrols the parking lot. His shirt says SECURITY. A surveillance camera sits atop the building.
Up until a few days ago, when a permanent sign went up, the only signs explaining the business inside were two letter-sized pieces of paper taped to the windows. Wesley Chapel Medical Group, each said in small black type.
Since the clinic opened in September, authorities have received complaints about streams of cars, often with out-of-state license plates, dropping off groups of patients.
The business, which is about a mile from the State Road 56 exit off Interstate 75, is owned by Lorenzo Jermaine Mathis, 37, a felon. Before opening the Wesley Chapel business, Mathis owned the NBC Pain Management Clinic, which was ordered to shut down in Hillsborough County.
This new clinic isn't registered with the state — and doesn't have to be. It's operating in spite of new state regulations and a Pasco County moratorium on pain management clinics — because Mathis says this isn't a pain management clinic at all.
It's an urgent care clinic, he said.
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State law defines a pain management clinic as one that advertises for any type of pain-management services or employs an osteopathic physician who's primarily engaged in the treatment of pain by prescribing or dispensing controlled substance medications.
State and county officials have passed measures to restrict and monitor such clinics, with the goal of cracking down on prescription drug abuse. State law requires pain clinics to be registered, owned by doctors and to undergo inspections. In July, Pasco commissioners imposed a moratorium on new pain clinics in the county and required existing ones to register. The move came shortly after Hillsborough and Pinellas counties approved similar restrictions.
Authorities say Mathis ran afoul of those regulations in Hillsborough County.
According to a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office report, deputies received a complaint from that county's Consumer Protection Agency that the NBC Pain Management Clinic had not applied for a pain clinic license, which county officials had begun requiring as of May 19.
Hillsborough County ordered NBC in a June 30 letter to "immediately cease and desist operation as a pain management clinic or face enforcement action and penalties." When officials visited the clinic to follow up, it was closed.
Mathis wouldn't talk about his former business, which operated on 56th Street south of Temple Terrace. But he did say that the Wesley Chapel clinic, which quietly opened shortly after NBC closed, is an urgent care clinic — and therefore not subject to Pasco County's moratorium on pain clinics or the new state restrictions on such clinics.
"We are not one of the little pill mills," said Mathis, a Wesley Chapel resident who said he opened the new clinic to be closer to family. "We're no different than the (walk-in clinic on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard). We're a legal business."
Some of the clinic's patients do suffer from chronic pain, he said.
"We treat patients in pain, whether they're insured or not," he said. "We want to help them have a better quality of life. A lot are on drugs and don't want to be on drugs."
He says he can monitor the security camera from his personal computer and points out that he employs a guard while the clinic is open. People who suspect his clinic is less than above board "watch too much TV," he said.
Mathis wouldn't discuss specifics on how the clinic operates or name the three rotating doctors he says practice there. He declined to answer other questions about the clinic, accusing the newspaper of harassment.
"This is taking up too much of my time," he said as he walked back inside the clinic. He said his attorney would call.
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Mathis has been arrested 14 times since 1992, mostly on charges of driving with a suspended or revoked license, a third-degree felony.
He was first charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor petty larceny in 1992, when authorities say he and a friend broke into another man's apartment. He pleaded no contest and a judge withheld a formal finding of guilt on the burglary charge. Mathis was ordered to serve two years of probation, perform 50 hours of community service and pay $415 in court costs.
Then in 1993, he was convicted on a third-degree grand theft charge that involved use of a stolen credit card, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He was sentenced to a year and six months of probation and community service to run concurrently with the previous sentence.
His latest arrest was Dec. 11, 2009, in Pasco County on a charge of driving with a suspended or revoked license. He pleaded no contest, was adjudicated guilty and was sentenced to a year's probation plus fines. Records show his driver's license was revoked for five years in 2009 because he is a habitual traffic offender.
In most cases, such a record would prevent someone from owning a medical clinic in Florida. The state Agency for Health Care Administration said it won't grant a license to a felon.
But clinics don't need a state license if they accept only cash and do not bill third parties such as Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers.
And "if a clinic is not required to be licensed, a convicted felon can own it," agency spokeswoman Shelisha Durden said.
A woman who answered the phone at Wesley Chapel Medical Group said the clinic accepts only cash.
Dr. Allan Escher of Tampa, a pain management specialist and a member of the Florida board that regulates osteopaths, was surprised to hear someone would set up an urgent care clinic that doesn't take Medicare — the insurance for so many Floridians.
Nor had he ever heard of a clinic with a security guard.
"Urgent care clinics don't typically need muscle men," said Escher, who said the state medical boards need to re-examine the rules for loopholes.
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Mathis said his new clinic is complying with all the requirements. Wesley Chapel Medical Group filed incorporation papers Sept. 28 with the Florida Secretary of State. Records also show the clinic, which has six employees, paid the required Pasco County business tax of $53.75 on Oct. 7.
Authorities received at least one complaint about each of Mathis' clinics. Neighboring businesses had concerns at both sites, but none of them wanted to be quoted in this story.
Dr. Rafael Miguel, a professor of medicine at the University of South Florida and former member of the state Board of Medicine, said he was not surprised that a man who once owned a pain clinic would open up another type of medical clinic.
Soon after the state restrictions passed, a chain of pain clinics informed officials that they were now "injury clinics."
"They're trying to fly under the radar," Miguel said.
Officials at the state health department, which regulates pain clinics, didn't comment specifically on the Wesley Chapel Medical Group, but said they investigate complaints of unlicensed pain clinics.
"If a clinic is primarily in the practice of pain management, naming themselves urgent care or injury clinics will not exempt them from the registration requirement," said health department spokeswoman Susan Smith. "We will investigate any allegation of a pain clinic operating without a license regardless of what they are calling themselves."
The Wesley Chapel Medical Group has also drawn attention from state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who sponsored legislation that restricts pain management clinics.
"He left Hillsborough as a pain management clinic and is suddenly not a pain management clinic?" said Fasano aide Greg Giordano.
He said if clinics are finding ways to skirt the regulations, Fasano would try to close the loopholes next year. Also, he said, a statewide tracking system for prescriptions that's expected to come online in the spring should help state health officials target doctors who are doling out too many narcotics and patients who are doctor shopping.
However, it has one major weakness:
No one is required to use it.
Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.