By John Pacenti
For nearly a decade, a look at the Florida Board of Medicine’s website would find Dr. Michael Ligotti in good standing.
No emergency actions. No discipline. No public complaints.
No indication of any investigation — criminal or administrative — of the Delray Beach physician who stood at the apex of an insurance fraud scheme in Palm Beach County that illicitly exploited drug addicts looking to recover during the height of the OxyContin crisis.
This despite complaints from families and advocates and finally an indictment 2½ years ago.
It would take a Miami federal judge’s order Jan. 9 for Ligotti, 48, to surrender his medical license after he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for defrauding insurers of $127 million on a total $746 million his Whole Health Medical Center billed.
The osteopath must also pay back a yet undetermined amount of money. A hearing was set for April 4.
The Board of Medicine weeks after the sentencing had not updated Ligotti’s status from “clear/active.”
The site warns that a doctor’s criminal history may be incomplete and is only verified at the time of initial licensure and when a license is up for renewal, which in Ligotti’s case is listed as March 2024.
“I simply lost my way,” a tearful Ligotti said in front of U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz II as his wife and family watched from the gallery. He said he “failed miserably” at upholding the sacred oath of a doctor to do no harm.
Prosecutors said Ligotti’s business moved addicts around like chess pieces, transporting them in vans dubbed “drug buggies” to associated sober homes and drug rehab centers in order to bilk Medicare and private insurance through fraudulent tests and treatment.
The operation relied on illegal patient brokering where third parties — often addicts paid by rogue treatment centers and sober homes — recruit other addicts to be used and victimized by the fraud.
One family’s story
Lisa Daniels-Goldman and Ken Daniels lost their son, Jamie, in December 2016 under the care of Ligotti.
He was 23 and aspired to be a lawyer or a sports agent. He was working on a program of recovery, his parents said, and even had a job at a law firm but ended up dead of a fentanyl overdose under the care of Ligotti’s operation.
“We trusted a system, shame on us,” Ken Daniels told the judge. “We trusted Jamie was living in a safe and sober environment, overseen by qualified medical professionals and staff, only to find out after his death that Jamie had been used for financial gain, your personal gain, Michael Ligotti.”
How craven was the patient brokering system? Daniels-Goldman said outside the courtroom that the person who had lured her son into the sober home where he died contacted the family afterward on Jamie’s phone. The man had some of Jamie’s prize possessions — jewelry, headphones — that he would return for a fee.
Outside of court, Ken Daniels opened his sports jacket. Inside were photos of his son and his daughter over the years. He is the TV play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League. The ESPN investigative news magazine E-60 did a story on Jamie’s death called the “Florida Shuffle.”
Ligotti, who received his medical degree from Nova Southeastern University, joins a sad parade of those prosecuted under a crackdown on South Florida’s illicit addiction industry.
The multi-agency task force was the first to start looking at the drug recovery industry in Palm Beach County — or really anywhere in the country. It paved the road for more than 120 arrests, according to the State Attorney’s Office.
Besides Ligotti, Dr. Mark Agresti was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for assisting in a $31.3 million fraud by sober home operator Kenneth Bailynson. Bailynson received a six-year sentence.
One of the most notorious sober home operators — Kenny Chatman — was given a 27-year sentence. Chatman prostituted some of his clients in a $16 million kickback and bribery scheme.
Ligotti faced 13 charges of health care fraud and money laundering but pleaded guilty Oct. 4 to only one count.
He faced life in prison because his operation was so extensive — thus leading to the plea bargain. He served as medical director for more than 50 sober homes, substance-abuse treatment centers and clinical testing laboratories, prosecutors said.
Special Agent in Charge Kevin W. Carter of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami Field Division said in a news release that families rely on doctors in the drug treatment industry to help their loved ones who suffer from the disease of addiction.
“Physicians and other medical professionals who hold positions of trust within our communities, will absolutely be held accountable for violations of that trust,” Carter said.
The bread and butter of the fraud was urine and blood drug testing of patients three or more times a week. The analysis was sent to labs, which billed insurers and paid kickbacks to sober home and treatment center operators. In turn, these businesses sent the patients to Ligotti’s Whole Health for additional testing and treatment.
Prosecutors said Whole Health billed one patient’s insurer more than $840,000 in six years.
In 2016, Ligotti sued an insurance provider for failing to pay him. He also sought to bully state regulators, writing to them in 2013 that he was outraged by accusations against Whole Health, claiming his name and license were used in an “unauthorized fashion,” according to the FBI’s arrest affidavit.
Prison term to start in June
“We are happy to put an end to this tragic episode,” said Judge Ruiz, noting the sentence was appropriate for the harm done. He noted that Ligotti’s operation also undermined the faith families could have in drug treatment while costing all those with private insurance higher premiums.
But Ruiz did not remand Ligotti to custody. Like some others who have been convicted of sober home crimes, he will remain free to testify against others in trials this spring. He is to report to prison on June 12.
“This is nothing but privilege over justice,” said Maureen Mulroy Kielian, whose Southeast Florida Recovery Advocates sounded the alarm about Ligotti long before his indictment.
Kielian filed a complaint against Ligotti in 2020 with the Board of Medicine.
In April 2021, she was informed that the complaint was forwarded to a probable cause panel for consideration but she said nothing happened. A complaint is noted on the Board of Medicine’s website only if probable cause is found.
She said most of South Florida’s drug treatment center woes can be laid at the feet of unscrupulous doctors.
“It’s not a sober home problem. It’s a treatment, medical director problem,” Kielian said. “There is no money without a prescription pad. It’s the same model as the pill mills. The minimum requirement is a Florida licensed provider.”