The state abruptly cut ties last week with a doctor who had been involved in several coronavirus testing sites after the Tampa Bay Times posed questions about the physician’s past.
South Florida physician Dr. Eric Pantaleon had been subcontracted to communicate positive test results to people who were tested for COVID-19 at more than a dozen government-run sites.
Public records show that in 2010, Pantaleon was permanently barred from treating patients who are HIV positive unless supervised by a specialist. That same year, he became a director at a clinic that federal prosecutors later said was part of Florida’s illegal oxycodone trade. A search of his physician’s license shows he’s been terminated from the state’s Medicaid program.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Division of Emergency Management spokesman Jason Mahon wrote in a Friday statement to the Times.
Mahon then said the department “halted all use of Dr. Eric Pantaleon’s medical practice effective immediately.”
In a statement to the Times, Pantaleon defended his record. He said the improper HIV treatment plans could be blamed on the practice he worked for at the time. The federal investigation, Pantaleon said, never led to charges against him. He said his Medicaid contract was terminated 15 years ago without cause.
Pantaleon’s removal as a coronavirus testing subcontractor was first reported Saturday by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which described a stream of complaints about excessive wait times for test results at places where Pantaleon’s practice, Medical Associates Network, had been listed as the contact.
How Pantaleon was selected for the position is unclear.
But the strange case of how a South Florida doctor tied to an alleged pill mill became a central figure in coronavirus testing shows how easily things can go awry in the state’s rush to expand its testing program.
Public health experts consider testing a key factor for a safe reopening. In an effort to quickly increase capacity, state officials have been awarding no-bid purchase orders to private companies.
One $11.3 million deal for testing and supplies went to a Texas-based firm run by a man who pleaded guilty last year to two felonies related to insurance fraud, the nonprofit news site Florida Bulldog reported last month.
Mahon told the Bulldog that “limited time does not allow for the division to vet” every company’s leadership.
Panataleon was working as a subcontractor of CDR Maguire, a Miami-based company that has landed more than $10 million in testing-related agreements with the state.
Dozens of people tested at the sites associated with CDR Maguire had publicly complained that they were left in limbo while they waited to learn whether they were infected with a disease that has now claimed the lives of more than 2,500 in Florida and 100,000 across America.
The Times first asked the Division of Emergency Management about CDR Maguire and Pantaleon’s practice last Wednesday. Director Jared Moskowitz declined an interview. By Friday, the state said it had severed ties with Pantaleon’s practice. Mahon said a new medical practice was filling the role going forward.
Mahon said Pantaleon was the physician named on coronavirus testing order forms for several sites across the state. Mahon described the arrangement as “a formality” and noted that Pantaleon did not prescribe any medication, offer medical advice or treat patients.
CDR Maguire did not respond to a question about how much Pantaleon was compensated for his work. The Times has been unable to obtain a copy of the subcontract.
In a statement, Pantaleon said his duties included calling back people who’d tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. He also called people whose results were deemed invalid or whose specimen was rejected by the lab. He said it was not his job to contact those who’d tested negative.
“When COVID-19 testing was opened to all Florida residents in the beginning of May, the system was quickly overwhelmed by demand,” he wrote. “For us, this meant that suddenly we were receiving 2,000 calls per hour, but without authorization to increase staffing.”
He didn’t directly respond to questions about his termination from the testing program.
CDR Maguire Executive Vice President Tina Vidal, who previously worked at a different company where Pantaleon was on the board of directors, said Friday that the company had terminated him and his business as subcontractors.
Vidal did not answer questions on how Pantaleon ended up as a subcontractor, nor did she specify why the arrangement was terminated. She noted that Pantaleon is a licensed physician who was eligible to do the work he’d been hired to do.
Vidal said everyone involved in the testing sites is trying to provide fast and accurate results to keep people safe. “These are unprecedented times,” she wrote in an email, “and there is no playbook for a pandemic.”
While Florida has been expanding its capacity to test people for the coronavirus, the state got off to a slow start.
Tests were damaged in transit. Some private labs waited weeks to report results to the state. Backlogs of tests at private labs have not been disclosed.
Florida ranks 25th nationally in terms of the number of people tested per capita. More than 230,000 tests have been administered at state-supported drive-through and walk-up sites, Mahon said. Gov. Ron DeSantis says the state now has more tests than people demanding them.
Florida has relied heavily on private companies like CDR Maguire for supplies and results.
CDR Maguire specializes in transportation engineering and emergency management. It subcontracted with Virginia-based GENETWORx to do the laboratory work and Pantaleon’s practice, Medical Associates Network, to help with notifications.
It’s unclear how the companies became connected.
CDR Maguire, GENETWORx and Medical Associates Network were put in charge of handling testing, supplies and results notifications for several large testing sites, including the Miami Beach Convention Center and University Town Center in Sarasota.
GENETWORx, which also does testing for gynecologic and gastrointestinal pathogens, started making and analyzing coronavirus tests at the end of March. And Florida quickly started using them, purchasing 5,000 kits for $68.75 each with an $18,000 shipping and handling fee.
In a statement to the Times, Terri Malenfant, a spokeswoman for GENETWORx’s owner, Recovery Centers of America, said the company reports results directly to state officials and that the average results turnaround time is three days.
GENETWORx ranks fourth among private labs for the number of tests it has performed in the state, having reported more than 111,000 results to the Florida Department of Health as of Monday. Overall, more than a million people have been tested statewide.
As the company ran more tests, complaints came in from people across the state unable to get results.
CDR Maguire acknowledged there had been a backlog of results notifications but said it caught up after the state asked it to create a patient portal and increase patient notifications to 10,000 per day.
A state purchase order dated May 28 shows that CDR Maguire is charging the state $26,525 a day for that many notifications.
The state has used CDR Maguire for more than just lab testing. The company has millions of dollars in coronavirus-related deals to provide everything from hand sanitizer and body bags to an emergency field hospital. The company’s emergency management department has worked with Florida governments in the aftermath of hurricanes.
CDR Maguire was among the companies that pledged to bring the state millions of dollars’ worth of the N95 masks preferred by health care workers. It delivered a fraction of what was promised — only $130,000 worth of masks, a Miami Herald analysis found.
Pantaleon’s role in the testing operation was prominent. His name was on test order forms and government press releases. Those tested got a slip of paper with his phone number. If they didn’t hear back within five days, they were instructed to call and ask for help.
Pantaleon was licensed as a doctor in Florida in 1993. He worked as a pediatric emergency room doctor and started or operated several medical companies over the years, according to state filings.
In 2001, following an audit, he had to return $36,000 in Medicaid payments. Pantaleon said the settlement stemmed from a dispute over checkup and sick-visit billings. He said the state later returned $16,000 of the money.
Pantaleon in 2004 treated patients who were HIV positive. In 2010, he was disciplined for prescribing medication to some of those patients without providing justification and without following up to check on the drug’s effectiveness, according to state records. He reached a settlement with the Florida Department of Health that came with a probation period, community service and a $15,000 fine.
Pantaleon told the Times he had been concerned about prescribing and billing practices at the clinic and left after three months. But by then, he said, he already “suffered the consequences of their actions.”
In October 2011, when Pantaleon was working at the Urgent Care and Surgery Center in Hollywood, the Florida Department of Health suspended his license, alleging he had prescribed “extraordinary doses of narcotics” to patients without justification.
Several months later, the health department dropped its case against Pantaleon. The Department of Health said evidence “showed the Department should reconsider the findings.” A spokesman did not answer questions about what evidence the department found.
Pantaleon told the Times that the state had received incomplete records during its 2011 narcotics investigation. He said officials lifted his suspension after he provided additional information.
The Urgent Care and Surgery Center had been on the radar of federal authorities months before Pantaleon became a director at the company in November 2010.
The center was run by three men who also started pain clinics in Tennessee in 2011. They were later indicted in federal court and accused of running pill mills in both states. The Urgent Care center refused to take medical insurance, charged “grossly excessive fees” for medications and repeatedly doled out high-powered narcotics to undercover agents, prosecutors said.
Pantaleon said he “severed all ties” with the men “upon learning of their practices” and had never himself been charged with overprescribing pain medication.
Pantaleon still works at the Urgent Care center, which now has a different location and ownership. He’s started several businesses in the past two decades that quickly dissolved.
In 2017, he started Medical Associates Network, which provides primary care and services for accident recovery, workers comp and injuries, according to an earlier version of its website. That was the company that received the subcontract from CDR Maguire to communicate test results.
The company was hounded by negative reviews on Google in the past couple weeks. “We are working day and night to provide the results as the lab provides them to us,” the company responded.
Seven people interviewed by the Times who were tested for the virus at sites associated with CDR Maguire said they tried calling Pantaleon’s practice after waiting days for results. It was his number, after all, that they’d been given at the testing sites.
They said they dialed and dialed, but reached no one.
“I called the number; it didn’t go anywhere,” said 62-year-old Nancy Sackett, who said she was tested on May 12 in Pensacola after a trip to New Orleans and still hadn’t heard back as of last week.
“I honestly must have called about 100 times,” said 30-year-old Felipe Leighton, who went to the Miami Beach testing site looking for clearance to return to work after previously testing positive for the virus. Thirteen days later, he said, he learned he was negative.
“If there is that kind of a delay, is this even reliable?” Marc Martorana, 57, asked after he waited 15 days for his results. He had been tested at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale.
In Sarasota, Donna Wolfson, 61, and her husband sought coronavirus testing on May 12 after her husband hurt himself working out and needed to be ruled virus-free before he could visit his doctor.
Wolfson said she’d been given the piece of paper with the contact for Medical Associates Network, and she called the number multiple times a day but didn’t get through.
She and her husband self-isolated in their home, living on separate sides. They acted as though her 71-year-old husband was infected. When she needed to help him, she wore gloves and a mask and sterilized everything.
Ten days came and went.
She wrote to the governor, senators and the Division of Emergency Management. She wrote a letter to the editor that was later published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
About two weeks after their tests, Wolfson said, they got their results: both negative.
In Miami Beach, Mayor Dan Gelber and other city leaders were tested on the opening day of the walk-up site at the Convention Center. After about five days passed, he said he called about four times, left messages and heard nothing.
Gelber initially didn’t identify himself as the mayor, he said in an interview, but finally felt he had to do so.
“At one point, I left a message saying, ‘Listen, if I can’t get a call back from you, I’m sort of worried about my residents and the treatment they’re going to get,” he said.
He said the city fielded more than a dozen complaints from residents about the same thing. He waited 13 days before learning his test was one of roughly 25 from the testing site that had been damaged.
Gelber texted the Times a photograph of the piece of paper he’d been given directing him to contact Pantaleon’s practice.
Gelber said he has since been retested at the Miami Beach site and received his results within five days.
Both CDR Maguire and Pantaleon said the backlog in notifications at their sites has been cleared.
Pantaleon said the expectation was that he and a team of no more than 10 others would make 1,000 notifications a day. He wasn’t supposed to be in charge of notifying people of negative results, he said. But those calls came anyway.
He still provided the information, he added.
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