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Indicted doctor helped shape policy

By Gary Fineout
10/9/2009 © Health News Florida

Over the past decade, Dr. Alan Mendelsohn became known in Tallahassee as the “go-to” guy when it came to raising money from the medical community.

But the Hollywood ophthalmologist, who was arrested last week amid sensational fraud charges outlined in a federal indictment, was more than just a rainmaker for politicians of both parties. He helped push significant health policy coming out of Tallahassee, even in years when he was not registered as a lobbyist.

An example is this year’s contentious battle over direct payment of benefits to doctors and hospitals, which pitted the Florida Medical Association against Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida and several consumer groups. Rep. Pat Patterson, R-DeLand and chairman of the House Insurance Committee, said Mendelsohn called him during the 2009 session to urge him to schedule a vote on SB 1122.  

“He told me it was the FMA’s biggest bill and I had that information confirmed,’’ said Patterson. “I told him I would look at it.’’ 

Patterson said that Mendelsohn did not threaten him, or make any promises in connection to getting the bill heard. The bill went on to pass and become law.

The FMA's top officers, in a written statement released to Health News Florida today, said Mendelsohn no longer plays any role within the organization. While he was an officer in the FMA political action committee in the past, he resigned voluntarily in April, the statement said.

"The Florida Medical Association is both shocked and disappointed about the charges levied against Dr. Alan Mendelsohn," according to a statement attributed to President James B. Dolan. "His alleged behavior is inconsistent with the actions we expect from our members and in no way represents the integrity of the Florida Medical Association and the more than 19,000 physicians we represent. Practicing medicine is a noble profession and we hope that these allegations do not sully the reputation of the entire medical profession."

A statement attributed to FMA Executive Vice President Timothy J. Stapleton added, "None of the charges against Dr. Mendelsohn involve the FMA. We take the reputation of our members and organization very seriously and do not condone any actions that may harm the integrity of the medical profession." 

Mendelsohn worked on a number of issues important to organized medicine in recent years,  including the eye-doctor fights and health insurance requirements for drivers.

He is charged with misuse of money intended for political contributions. He allegedly used it to pay off credit-card bills, support his mistress, and make payments to a former public official. Investigators have not identified that official, which has set off an attack of nerves in Tallahassee.

The bill that Mendelsohn called Patterson about earlier this year was designed to help doctors who are not part of an insurer’s network get paid directly by the insurer when they treat its enrollees. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida instead sent a check to the patient, who then was supposed to pay the doctor. Doctors complained that they sometimes never saw the money.
Blue Cross argued that passage of the bill would remove much of the incentive for doctors to join a network, and would therefore raise insurance premiums. Some consumer groups -- and the Insurance Consumer Advocate for the state, Sean Shaw -- took up that chorus.

The House version of the direct-payment bill was sponsored by Rep. Marcello Llorente, R-Miami. Llorente, who said he has dealt with Mendelsohn in the past, said he sponsored the bill at the urging of a different South Florida physician, Miguel Machado.

Once the bill was passed there was a big push to get Gov. Charlie Crist to veto it. But Crist did not, siding with the doctors. Mendelsohn had been part of Crist's transition team, but the governor's press secretary Erin Isaac said in an e-mail that the doctor did not ask Crist to approve the bill. 

Famed San Francisco defense attorney John Keker, who is representing Mendelsohn, would not answer any questions about Mendelsohn’s lobbying activities this week. He cited a Sept. 30 statement that said the ophthalmologist had pleaded not guilty to the “politics-based charges” leveled against him and that he intended to “vigorously’ fight them.

Mendelsohn’s first big legislative push with health care came in 2001 when he was part of an unsuccessful effort to pass legislation that would have barred the use of optometrists in post-operative care. Supporters of the bill said it protected public safety; opponents said it was protectionism for ophthalmologists like Mendolsohn.

Another big health-policy fight was the 2007 reenactment of the requirement that drivers buy at least $10,000 in personal injury protection insurance, called PIP. The FMA called Mendelsohn “instrumental” in getting PIP renewed.

This year, the fight among eye doctors cropped up again. The FMA lauded Mendelsohn in a March newsletter as “invaluable” for helping persuade lawmakers that a bill letting optometrists prescribe oral medications “represented a danger to public safety.” The measure was killed by a 5-3 vote in a Senate committee.

Mendelsohn was registered as a Tallahassee lobbyist only in 2005 and 2006, working for Stephen Hull Inc. Hull, according to the Miami Herald, set up one of the political committees that federal authorities investigated as part of its corruption probe. He was not named in the indictment.

Until last week Hull was the main lobbyist for the Florida Society of Opthalmology and has long-running ties to Mendelsohn, who served as president of the group in the 1990s.

On Thursday Hull declined to discuss the case, including whether he has retained a lawyer. “I can’t talk to you,’’ he said.

--Gary Fineout is a partner in and covers politics in the Fine Print blog.