In response to deaths in Florida’s cosmetic surgery centers, a top state lawmaker proposed legislation that would allow the state to punish clinics for the first time and ban troubled doctors from working in the facilities.
State regulators could impose fines and shut down clinics that have operated for decades with virtually no regulatory oversight while patients were left with critical injuries.
The bill filed Tuesday came days after an investigation by USA TODAY and the Naples Daily News showed eight women died after procedures in the same Miami-area plastic surgery business where doctors with little specialized training performed up to eight surgeries a day in what patient advocates called a factory assembly line.
Despite the deaths and injuries – including two women hospitalized after their intestines were perforated – the state allowed the facilities to keep operating.
More: This business helped transform Miami into a national plastic surgery destination. Eight women died.
“It’s a national problem because you’ve got people from all over the country (coming to Florida) under the assumption that they will be safe,” said state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the chamber’s deputy majority leader, who sponsors the bill.
Flores, whose district includes the plastic surgery business investigated by USA TODAY, said the fatal surgeries are “heartbreaking cases of people with young families, and the last thing they expected was to come here and die.”
The investigation found Jolie Plastic Surgery is among more than a dozen high-volume clinics in Florida owned by investors and driven by discount prices and social media advertising that draw thousands of women each year from across the country.
More: Young mothers, blue-collar clerks promised life-changing plastic surgeries – and died.
The state health department said it has never been able to close the facilities when patients die or are injured, but the proposal would give the state the power to revoke a clinic’s registration.
The bill would require that only doctors could own the facilities, and if a clinic was shut down, the physician who owned the center would not be able to run another for at least five years.
Patients flock to Miami-area facilities for one of the fastest-growing – and most dangerous – procedures in plastic surgery: the Brazilian butt lift.
Popularized in Miami, the butt lifts have resulted in numerous deaths in the past five years in Florida, including some of the fatalities examined by USA TODAY.
Four of the women undergoing the procedure died after their doctors mistakenly injected body fat deep into their muscles and tore veins, creating deadly embolisms that killed them in minutes, records and interviews show.
“Some of these procedures didn’t exist even a few years ago, and people are dying from it,” Flores said.
Her bill proposes banning doctors from owning clinics or even working in the facilities if the doctor was disciplined by the medical board in the previous five years.
In addition to revoking licenses, the proposal would allow the state to suspend a clinic from operating for up to two years and impose fines of up to $10,000 if a doctor was caught running an unregistered clinic.
Christopher Nuland, a longtime Florida health care lawyer who represents the Florida Society of Plastic Surgeons, said similar bills have been shot down, including one last year in the House pushed by a former lawmaker who is a doctor. Nuland said the national publicity brought about by the USA TODAY investigation raised the issue to a new level.
“This has gotten the attention of the (lawmakers),” he said. “Right now, the (clinics) are not under any direct regulation. People can either clean up their act or get out.”
Nuland said Florida’s board-certified plastic surgeons he represents welcome state oversight if it means cracking down on dangerous clinics where patients die.
But he said passing the legislation may be difficult. The Florida House usually fights efforts to force additional regulations and other kinds of licensing. And he said some of the key points of the bill are too strict, like banning doctors who simply work in the clinics from moving to another facility for five years.
“I would say it’s a start,” he said.
More: Before scheduling a cosmetic surgery procedure, make sure you follow these 14 steps
Flores said she’s willing to make compromises, but the pressure is on the state. For years, the Legislature has promoted medical tourism – attracting people to Florida for surgeries. “We are doing this to safeguard people.”
“There’s no way you can bring back a family member that you’ve lost. But I know that if your family tragedy prevented another one, that brings some solace,” she said.
Tammy Meadows, whose 29-year-old daughter died after the state said her doctor made critical mistakes during her plastic surgery in 2016, said she was heartened by the proposed bill, but “it should have been passed a long time ago.”
“What gets me is how the state of Florida could have allowed the clinics to go on,” said Meadows, who is raising her daughter’s two children, ages 2 and 8. “They need to stop this when you see so many dying.”