Editor's Note, June 18, 2013: Dr. David Sassano has provided the Times with documentation showing that his medical license is clear and active. The investigation referenced in this article did not result in any charges against him.
PALM HARBOR — State officials shut down a pain management clinic here Wednesday based on allegations it prescribed "potentially lethal doses of oxycodone" and inappropriately prescribed other drugs such as Xanax and Valium.
A former doctor at the clinic says he was pressured to over-prescribe by the clinic's owner, Lance Whitney, who he said told him patients needed to leave happy to keep more money flowing into the clinic.
That was the philosophy at Whitney Enterprises on Alt. U.S. 19, said Dr. Sanjeev Grover, who left the clinic in October as he was being investigated by state and federal officials.
The emergency suspension order delivered to Whitney Enterprises at 1440 Alt. U.S. 19 stemmed from a 20-month investigation into questionable prescription practices, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The investigation was conducted by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Countywide Diversion Task Force, which includes an investigator from the state Department of Health.
The suspension order was handed down by state Surgeon General Dr. Frank Farmer. The order accuses both Grover and Dr. David Sassano of over-prescribing.
"This is a situation where you've got people who hold themselves out to be health care practitioners and they're really just drug dealers and they're using the guise of some sort of license," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "I call them drug dealers in white coats."
Grover, whose medical license was suspended in October because of illegal prescribing, said he had a falling out with owner Whitney in July over the "obscene amounts" of pain killers he was expected to prescribe.
"I said 'I just can't prescribe this any more' and I was told (by Whitney) to do what I was told to do," said Grover, 48.
Grover said he stayed on until October — when he was confronted by Drug Enforcement Administration officials — while he looked for another job. He was federally indicted for prescribing outside the scope of his license about two weeks before it was suspended over allegations he was selling prescriptions in business parking lots. The federal case is ongoing.
Sassano, Grover said, joined the clinic after his departure.
Whitney does not hold a medical license in the state of Florida. The report says Whitney published a music video in which he claims he has "sniffed so much coke, it seems like my sinus broke." In the same video, he is seen holding what appears to be marijuana.
Whitney and Sassano did not return calls for comment Wednesday evening.
The suspension order allows the Department of Health to shut down the clinic pending an administrative hearing.
During the investigation, a board certified pain management expert reviewed the files of five patients.
The expert found that in some of the cases, Grover or Sassano conducted only "cursory exams" before prescribing large quantities of pain medications, and in one case, it does not appear the patient saw a doctor at all on his or her first visit, according to the order. (Patients were identified by their initials to protect their privacy.)
In at least one case, a patient continued to go to the clinic but generally was seen by an assistant, not a doctor. That patient was prescribed 1,095 oxycodone pills in a five-month span — well over accepted doses for therapeutic uses, according to the report.
Gualtieri said the number of pain clinics in Pinellas County has dropped significantly — from around 65 or 70 to less than 30 — because of greater enforcement efforts and the Pinellas County Commission's May 2010 moratorium placed on new clinics.
The moratorium is still in place and will be until at least 60 days after the end of the 2012 session of the state Legislature.
Grover said he was trying to wean some patients off of the drugs, but met resistance from Whitney. He said he hopes to resolve his license suspension and wants to return to medicine, but will never again prescribe narcotic pain relievers.
"It was a pill mill and I was in the middle of it. I was blamed for it …and now I'm paying the price for it," Grover said.
Times Staff Writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report.