February 4, 2001
FORT PIERCE -- Annelle Blanchard was a wealthy New Orleans doctor who once rubbed elbows with the Big Easy's social elite.
On Jan. 22, she was found badly burned in a mysterious fire in a $350-a-month apartment in Fort Pierce. Since then, state medical authorities acknowledge a troubling truth:
Blanchard had been treating the poor of Fort Pierce despite having her medical license suspended in Louisiana, and the Florida Department of Health charges she also had a drug problem.
"How can we put our vulnerable population -- our children -- in the hands of a woman like this?" asked Sylvie Kramer, executive director of St. Lucie County Healthy Start. "How can you get a medical license in one state, when it has been suspended in another?"
The answer to that question begins in New Orleans.
Blanchard, 50, a Louisiana State University graduate, had risen through the ranks of the medical world. Her patients included a former New Orleans city councilwoman and famed novelist Anne Rice.
A self-proclaimed high-risk pregnancy obstetrician, Blanchard began running into legal trouble in 1994. That year, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists investigated her medical practices.
The review determined Blanchard was performing too many unnecessary and expensive procedures. The procedures, which Blanchard said were necessary to avoid premature birth, often cost more than $7,000.
Blanchard also was criticized for funneling patients who needed special treatment to a health care company of which she was part owner.
Several hospitals suspended her privileges, and in 1998, the Louisiana State Board of Medicine suspended Blanchard's license to practice in the state, according to legal documents.
Tallahassee attorney Jeff G. Peters, who represents Blanchard, says it was politics -- not performance -- that led to her legal problems in Louisiana.
"I don't think her skills as a doctor have ever been called into question," Peters said. "She has an outstanding reputation and there are many who have given testimonials on her behalf."
Peters said Blanchard was outspoken on women's rights issues and that irked Louisiana's medical authorities.
"We believe the New Orleans actions taken against her were completely off-base," Peters said. "That state has a long history of charges being trumped up."
Following a flurry of lawsuits, Blanchard moved to Florida, where she has held a medical license since 1993. The license is valid through 2002. Her primary business is listed as being in Miami, but state health officials have no way to determine whether she was actually practicing there.
According to Florida Department of Health officials, it was Blanchard's responsibility to inform the Florida Board of Medicine within 30 days of her suspension in Louisiana, but those officials said she kept her suspension secret.
Peters said the information was available in a national database and that Blanchard was not trying to hide anything.
Blanchard started working as an obstetrician for Trinity Medical Center, 1803 S. 25th St., Fort Pierce, in May 2000, although her Florida Health Department Practitioner Profile indicated that "I do not practice medicine in Florida."
Kramer, the Healthy Start executive director, brought Trinity, a Deerfield Beach-based company, to St. Lucie County.
Trinity received state Health Department funds through Heal- ?thy Start to help cover medical services provided to the poor and those on Medicaid. Kramer said she never met Blanchard, but she did find out about her past.
"What I was hearing about Dr. Blanchard was troubling to me," Kramer said. "There were many reports that her actions were inappropriate."
A month after Blanchard joined Trinity, Kramer ended Healthy Start's financial agreement with the clinic, which the previous year had received $68,000 from Healthy Start for medical services to the poor.
During her tenure at Trinity, Blanchard also was given temporary privileges called locum tenens to work at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center.
Hospital spokeswoman Beth Tuttle said Blanchard worked at Lawnwood for three weeks from May 31 to June 22, 2000.
"I would assume she saw patients during that time," Tuttle said. "There is a process in place where information about her suspensions would come to light."
Tuttle said a doctor would have to prove that he or she had a Florida medical license and had been on staff at another hospital to receive privileges at Lawnwood. A lengthy credentialing process, including interviews with several hospital staff, must be completed for permanent privileges to be granted.
When asked whether a doctor with a suspended license from another state would be allowed to work at Lawnwood, Tuttle said each application would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Trinity office manager Vicki Perdiue said Blanchard "is in the process of being credentialed at Lawnwood." When asked whether Trinity was aware of Blanchard's prior suspensions, Perdiue said the corporate office had no comment.
On June 19, the Health Department filed an administrative complaint against Blanchard after her prior suspensions were uncovered. In the complaint, the Health Department said Blanchard was suspended because she had a drug problem.
"(Blanchard) has for an extended period suffered from and currently suffers from continuing and recurring excessive use and abuse of controlled substances, which renders her unable to practice medicine with responsible skill and safety to patients," the complaint states.
"When you get in trouble in another state, it has to be reported to other states," said April Crowley, Health Department spokeswoman. "The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration then investigates and tells the Board of Medicine if they see an immediate threat. If there is, the doctor can be suspended."
Blanchard filed a consent agreement with the Agency For Health Care Administration on Nov. 1. It was her first response to the allegations brought in the original complaint.
In the consent agreement, Blanchard suggested several punishments for her actions, including a $1,000 fine, reimbursement of costs incurred by the Health Department for its investigation, and entrance into the Physicians Recovery Network. Blanchard did not suggest having her license suspended.
"It is a long litigation process and this is just the start," Crowley said. "The Board of Medicine can say ënoí to the consent agreement. The board has the final say." That decision is on hold indefinitely as Blanchard recovers from severe injuries suffered in a January fire in her one-room apartment, at North Second Street and Seaway Drive, where she was paying $350 a month rent. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Blanchard currently is listed in critical condition at the Tampa General Hospital burn unit, suffering from second- and third-degree burns over 75 percent of her body, fire district officials said.
An investigation of the fire by Nationwide Insurance, the company that insured the apartment building, determined several bottles of narcotics were found in Blanchardís unit after the fire.
Christine Johns, who owns the two-story apartment that burned, said Blanchard moved in on Jan. 1.
"She wanted to save some money," Johns said. "She had been living in a condominium on the beach."
Blanchard had lived in a luxury condo. Realtor Steve Patterson said Blanchard rented villa 723 in Ocean Village, 2400 S. Ocean Blvd, for $1,000 a month from May to December.
"She was a little different," Patterson said. "There was some erratic behavior."