Kennesaw police Chief Bill Westenberger said the department received its first complaint about Pain Express just days after opening. By Feb. 5, police became involved in what he described as the beginning of a "whirlwind."
"The Friday after they opened, a man called to say that his daughter was working at a business near there and that she was terrified because people kept coming in and locking themselves in the bathroom for 30 minutes at a time. We also received word that a local pharmacy had run out of its entire inventory of OxyContin within just a few days of the clinic being open. So these certainly raised some red flags," Westenberger said.
Westenberger said police began to monitor the area more. Kennesaw Police Lt. Craig Graydon said officers noticed an abnormal amount of people visiting the clinic, lining up around the building, and that many of them were from Kentucky, Ohio or Tennessee.
The clinic was owned by two brothers who owned other clinics in southern Florida. Westenberger said one of the owners, Jeff George, called police Feb. 5, saying he had gotten word in Miami that his Kennesaw clinic and customers were being unfairly targeted, and wanted to meet with police to discuss it. On Feb. 8, George flew up from Miami to meet with Westenberger, Cobb Narcotics Unit agents, the mayor, city manager and a City Council member, Westenberger said.
"I told Mr. George that our paths would not have crossed if there were no complaints," Westenberger said. "He then said, 'Well, maybe my research wasn't as good for finding the best place for my clinic.' Mr. George also said what they were doing was legal, but I told him that what people were doing when they left the clinic probably wasn't. I just kept saying I couldn't understand why someone would drive from Kentucky to Georgia to get to a pain clinic, passing by hundreds and hundreds of other doctors and clinics. He said it was just good advertising and that people just wanted to come to his clinics."
Westenberger said patients were not required to schedule an appointment, payments were only accepted in cash, no insurance claims were filed, and the on-site doctor was handing out pain medications such as Oxycodone from the clinic's in-house pharmacy, while writing prescriptions for medicines the clinic did not have.
On March 3, federal authorities raided three of the brothers' clinics in Lake Worth, Fla. Graydon said George closed the Pain Express business soon after the raids in Florida. The Kennesaw clinic was still open on March 5, when the Journal ran a story on it.
According to the Complaint for Forfeiture issued by the U.S. District Court in south Florida on March 3, the brothers established their Pain Express business on Jan. 22, 2008, and made more than $14 million in cash deposits to various banks in 2009 alone.
The forfeiture also stated that the clinics' doctors were being paid between $861,000 to $1.2 million a year. It states that one of the doctors told an undercover investigator that people from Kentucky, Ohio and South Carolina were traveling to the clinics to buy Oxycodone for $5 a pill, and selling them in their home states for $80 a pill, and that Chris George, the other owner, had approximately $40 million in assets that needed to be laundered.
Local jurisdictions are attempting to strengthen regulations so that what Graydon said Florida authorities have told him is a "prescription drug overdose and crime nightmare" in Florida does not travel to Georgia.
"All the states around us have electronic prescription monitoring programs, that can include law enforcement, doctors and pharmacists all monitoring the distribution of pain medications," Westenberger said. "Keep in mind, Kentucky is one of the most progressive and regulatory states when it comes to prescription drugs, which is where most of the out-of-state people were coming from."
The Cobb County Board of Commissioners suspended the acceptance of all zoning, permit and license applications for medical clinics through June 30 during Tuesday night's meeting.
"One reason we did this is because we need time to come up with a definition of medical clinics that are eligible to operate in Cobb so we don't have something like this come up. We've never had a pill house like this in Cobb County, and there are many legitimate clinics in Cobb, so we don't want to penalize those that are legit," County Community Development Director Rob Hosack said.
The Kennesaw City Council has called a special called meeting for Wednesday, where Mayor Mark Mathews said they also expect to place a moratorium on new action for medical clinics within the city so that they can review their ordinances.
Mathews said the clinic opened legally as their zoning and business license were in compliance with city code, but that he believes the laws governing these clinics needs to be tightened.
"The key answer is that we need to be more consistent with what other nearby states are doing to regulate them. Right now, Georgia doesn't really have anything," Mathews said.
Senate Bill 418, also known as the Georgia Patient Safety Act, passed the Georgia Senate on Wednesday and has now gone to the House for approval.