Alisa Jaffe of Boca Raton makes a living as a financial advisor. At 49, she’s a sensible, savvy woman.
But four years ago, she says, she was vulnerable. She felt so tired all the time she could hardly get out of bed. She fell for a line from a glib talker who said he could restore her to health, she said.
The man she's referring to is Brian Yusem, a body-builder who sometimes calls himself "doctor," other times a "health coach" or "nutritionist." When Jaffe came to his Boca Raton clinic in 2009, the sign on the door and on his business card said “Doctor” Brian Yusem, N.D.
(N.D. stands for naturopathic doctor, a "holistic" practitioner of non-toxic methods to help the body heal itself. The N.D. licensure category was abolished in Florida in 1959, according to the Department of Health).
Before Jaffe knew it, she said, she had agreed to a two-year program of wellness, cleansing and nutrition advice for which she paid about $13,000 -- upfront.
“He was going on and on and it sounded like an interesting program. It certainly was a good sales job,” Jaffe said. She says now, “I was scammed.”
It has become increasingly clear that Florida is rife with clinics that engage in a type of practice that is far outside the mainstream. Some promote treatments that are simply odd, such as internal cleanses and chelation therapy, while others seem aimed at profits. These include not only the infamous “pill mills” that sell addictive drugs to addicts and pushers, but clinics that tout anti-aging hormone treatments, questionable diet drugs, steroid injections, and so on.
A feature of many such clinics is the unlicensed practice of medicine; the clinic owner may hire a doctor whose main job is to sign prescriptions and make the place look legitimate. Such a clinic, BioGenesis of America in Miami, is now the focus of a steroid investigation by Major League Baseball.
As the Miami Herald recently reported, loopholes in state law leave no agency in charge of regulating cash-only clinics, such as Biogenesis or Maxim Life.
Around the time that Alisa Jaffe visited Maxim LIfe, it was under investigation for possible involvement in illegal sale of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and other controlled drugs, according to records from the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office. No charges involving those drugs have been filed.
Yusem's supplying of syringes and muscle-building drugs has long been controversial, if this 2007 profile from Yahoo Sports! is an indication. But he had escaped the attention of health officials and law enforcement until Jaffe walked through the door.
'I have a tumor'
She says Yusem and his associates supposedly analyzed her lab tests and told her that she had parasites, yeast, and toxic heavy metals in her body. The treatments they gave her made her sicker, she said.
The weekly visits to the clinic also delayed her getting a real diagnosis from a licensed physician. She would eventually learn that she had a large thyroid tumor, one that required immediate surgery.
“So I go back to Brian and I tell him ‘This is what I have, a tumor,’” Jaffe recalls. “And he says, ‘You can’t have surgery, that’s going to screw up everything.’”
Instead, she says, Yusem suggested that she drink something – she doesn’t know what it was – that he said would shrink the tumor. But this time she didn’t listen; she went ahead with the surgery.
Afterward, Jaffe saw Yusem a few more times, until he started talking about stem-cell treatments. She says she walked out in October 2010 and never went back.
That might have been the end of the story, if Alisa Jaffe hadn’t found a new family doctor, and if that doctor had been almost anyone other than Dr. Ken Woliner.
Who wrote the prescriptions?
Woliner was growing increasingly angry over the proliferation of alternative treatment centers in Florida that were drawing patients away from real medical care. One of his patients had died because of just that situation, he said.
So when he had trouble getting Jaffe’s records from the Maxim Life clinic, he started pushing. When he finally got them, Woliner said, he saw the prescriptions for Jaffe had been written by a Dr. Glenn Charles, an osteopathic physician who mainly did hair transplants. Jaffe said she had never met him.
Woliner, who had been in minor trouble with the Board of Medicine once himself about five years before, had taken a course on Florida’s laws and rules for physicians. So Woliner knew it was illegal for a doctor to sign prescriptions for an unlicensed person to hand out.
“This doctor allowed this unlicensed body builder to order tests, see patients, prescribe drugs, (and) dispense drugs out of his office. When I realized this, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness. This is terrible!’ I called up the physician.”
Woliner says Dr. Charles denied any wrongdoing, altered the medical record “and tried to cover his tracks. It just blew my mind, so I reported him to the Department (of Health).”
Eighteen months went by and nothing happened, as far as Woliner and Jaffe could tell. So in early 2011, they called the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Documents from the State Attorney’s Office show that an undercover officer, posing as a patient and wearing a wire and hidden camera, began making visits to Yusem’s clinic. Over time, Yusem diagnosed her with several maladies, without ever doing a physical exam, and arranged for her to pick up some medicine. Dr. Charles was listed as the prescribing physician.
In August 2011, Yusem was arrested on charges of practicing medicine without a license. Two months later, Dr. Charles was also arrested.
Both men quickly bailed out and went back to work.
Last month, Dr. Charles pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of aiding the unlicensed practice of medicine. But his sentence was withheld, pending his cooperation in prosecuting Yusem. That trial has been reset three times and is now scheduled for late July.
Health News Florida tried to reach Dr. Charles and his attorney several times by phone and e-mail, but they did not respond.
Yusem spoke with a reporter for a few minutes, saying he did nothing wrong. He said he's been a "health coach" for 23 years, discussing the importance of nutrition and chemical toxicity with customers who pay him a membership fee up front for long-term counseling. Yusem said he has "hundreds and hundreds of testimonials."
Yusem said he was surprised at Jaffe's complaint and said she wasn't entitled to a refund. "It's like a gym membership, (paying) and then not using it and asking for your money back," he said.
As for Woliner, Yusem said he's gone off the deep end, like a "vigilante."
'Committed to patient safety'
Alisa Jaffe believes the Health Department “mishandled” the case for years, noting that an administrative complaint against Glenn Charles, a D.O., was filed only after she sent a letter to Surgeon General John Armstrong threatening to go to the press.
Ashley Carr, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said officials there have gone out of their way to help keep Woliner informed of progress on complaints he’s filed and have to give priority to cases that involve an immediate danger to the public.
She added: “We are committed to patient safety and will continue to review and investigate all complaints.”