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Florida bar targets 1-800-ASK-GARY service

Michael Sasso, Tampa Tribune

September 23, 2011

The accident clinic chain behind the 1-800-ASK-GARY referral line may be facing its biggest challenge ever, as a Florida Bar committee and the state Legislature consider cracking down on such hotlines.

One idea is to require hotlines to refer injured auto accident victims to at least four medical clinics for treatment. It is believed that Physicians Group, the clinic chain affiliated with 1-800-ASK-GARY, only refers patients to its own healthcare facilities.

"It's not a referral service if there's only one (healthcare) provider," state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, told a Florida Bar committee in Lake Buena Vista Thursday. Kriseman plans to file a bill in the Florida House of Representatives regulating referral services shortly.

Physicians Group has become a lightning rod in Florida's legal, medical and insurance circles because of its massive size and influence. Started by chiropractor Gary Kompothecras in Sarasota, Physicians Group and a related firm have grown to nearly 50 accident clinics in Florida and additional clinics in Minnesota and Kentucky.

Call center workers for the 1-800-ASK-GARY hotline refer injured accident victims to its own clinics, which are filled with chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons and other healthcare workers, and also refer callers to dozens of personal injury lawyers.

On Thursday, the Florida Bar committee held an all-day discussion about the growth of such referral hotlines, which now number around 70 in Florida. The two biggest appear to be 1-800-ASK-GARY and 411 Pain, which is a medical and legal hotline based in South Florida.

The Bar committee is investigating the referral services' advertising, which often doesn't reveal that medical clinics are behind the ads. And, it is exploring the financial relationships between the clinics and accident attorneys involved in the hotlines, said Grier Wells, a Jacksonville lawyer chairing the committee.

Many in the audience Thursday seemed riveted by the story of Jeffrey Lauffer, who says he spent seven years as a chiropractor and MRI technician working for Physicians Group and its predecessor company. Lauffer once helped open new clinics in Inverness and Ocala and supervised the company's chiropractors in Kentucky, he said.

Lauffer told the Bar committee that chiropractors had little power to control patients' care at Physicians Group. However, the personal injury lawyers who received referrals from 1-800-ASK-GARY had a role in determining patient care at Physicians Group. They often discussed with Physicians Group case managers how much auto insurance the injured patient had and how much healthcare treatment he could afford, Lauffer said.

Lauffer's attorney, Raymond Haas, said attorneys should not have a role in determining medical care. Lauffer also told Bar committee members that Physicians Group kept records of how many medical procedures its professionals conducted. Employees were incentivized to perform many procedures, he said.

"You'd better keep your services up or you might get your bonus cut, or you might get cut," Lauffer told the committee. The Tribune left messages for Physicians Group's attorney, Greg Zitani, Wednesday and Thursday but was unable to reach him for comment. No one from Physicians Group appeared to attend Thursday's meeting.

It's unlikely the Florida Bar could take any action against Physicians Group, because it has no power over non-lawyers.

However, it can regulate the attorneys that use it and other legal and medical referral services. It is critical that people who call referral hotlines understand the financial relationships between accident lawyers and the referral hotlines, said Wells, the Bar committee chairman.

Aside from the Bar probe, groups such as Physicians Group and its 1-800-ASK-GARY affiliate and 411 Pain face challenges in the Legislature this January. Legislators are likely to press for changes in the personal injury protection, or no-fault, insurance system. That is a key source of revenue for Physicians Group and similar clinics.

Kriseman, the St. Petersburg lawmaker, is preparing a new bill that would require disclosure showing the financial stake that medical providers and attorneys have in referral hotlines. Last year, he introduced a similar bill that picked up the nickname the "ASK GARY bill," he said.

It never passed last year, but he's more hopeful for this year, he said.