Nearly 1,000 physicians practicing in Florida not qualified as fully licensed doctors of medicine

ORLANDO, Fla. — A local attorney says it’s something she’s never heard of in nearly two decades dealing with medical malpractice.

9 Investigates uncovered nearly a thousand physicians working statewide who are not fully licensed MDs in Florida.

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They hold what are known as “temporary area of critical need” licenses. As Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray learned, however, there’s no clear definition of what’s temporary or critical.

“It was love at first site, actually,” Evelyn Pino said of her late husband, Jose. “I don’t think it’s very common what we had. Nowadays, you don’t see it.”

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Jose was the only one in his family to come to the United States from Cuba. Evelyn is from Puerto Rico. When Jose started having chest pain in 2016, they preferred getting care from doctors who spoke Spanish and sought a nearby physician’s group focusing on family medicine in Polk County.

“They’re the doctors, who am I not to trust them? They’re there, friendly atmosphere,” Pino recalled.

Now, Evelyn is suing the Medical Home Alliance, IMA Wellness Center and four of its doctors for allegedly “breaching the prevailing standards of care in the treatment of Jose who had multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” after he died following complications of a massive heart attack.

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“Never got to see his son getting married, the grandbaby, never got to see the oldest getting married. He would be so proud of her now,” Evelyn said.

The suit lays out a claim that the doctors should have known there was an incomplete evaluation of Jose’s cardiac condition and that he was obviously at risk, which should have led to additional testing and a referral to a cardiologist.

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But what’s more concerning to attorney Pamela Padilla, of the Martinez-Manglardi law firm, is what she discovered about three of the doctors they’re suing.

“Three of the physicians we are suing actually have a licensure I have never heard about,” Padilla said.

Instead of a full Florida medical license, they have what’s called a Temporary Certificate to Practice in an Area of Critical Need license, meaning they did not complete the required multi-year residency in Florida, and instead became licensed in another U.S. jurisdiction with lower standards.

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“This law allows doctors who would not otherwise be qualified to practice medicine in the state of Florida,” Padilla said.

9 Investigates went through the statute, which says after an application fee of $300, anyone licensed to practice in another U.S. jurisdiction, including Puerto Rico where residency requirements are a year, can get a temporary certificate to perform medicine in Florida. Though the statute lists county health departments, correctional facilities, VA clinics and geographically-identified areas of need, it also leaves room for doctors to apply for approval from the state surgeon general.

“You wouldn’t know, and unless you did a search with the Department of Health, you wouldn’t find it,” Padilla said. “You wouldn’t know, no one would know.”

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More than 900 physicians in Florida are working on T-ACN licenses.

Those doctors are working in areas you wouldn’t expect, including some of the busiest parts of the biggest cities in the state.

“If Florida doctors are required to do certain things, why are other doctors from anywhere else not required to do the same?” Pino asked.

It’s no longer available on the Department of Health website, but medical malpractice attorney Pamela Padilla obtained a list of facilities throughout the state approved to hire physicians with these types of licenses.

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“Thousands of clinics, in the middle of downtown Orlando, downtown Tampa, all over, it makes no sense,” Padilla said.  “Areas where it’s seemingly not an area of critical need or a lack of physicians.”

Dozens of facilities in Orange County were given approval to hire ACN-licensed physicians due to a low-income population.  One such medical group, Orlando Family Physicians, has ACN-licensed physicians working locations along busy Alafaya, Goldenrod, and Curry Ford, where there’s no shortage of access to medical care.  One of the group’s doctors, who works off of Semoran, has been on a ‘temporary’ ACN-license for more than a decade.

“It was love at first site, actually,” Evelyn Pino said of her late husband, Jose. “I don’t think it’s very common what we had.

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Though it’s impossible to know whether additional training would have led to a different outcome, it’s something Evelyn wishes she knew before choosing where to take her soulmate for care.

“I don’t understand it, but if there’s any way to let people know, please do your research before you decide to go with a doctor,” Evelyn said.

We reached out to the attorneys representing the clinic and the doctors. So far, we have not received a response.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.