injured in fire had shadowy, troubled past
February 4, 2001
Mark Pollio, Tribune staff writer
-- If the American dream is a rise from rags to riches, Annelle Blanchard is
living the American nightmare.
A wealthy New Orleans doctor who once
rubbed elbows with the Big Easyís social elite, Blanchard fell into a troubled
downward spiral that left her badly injured from a mysterious Jan. 22 fire in
her Fort Pierce apartment.
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
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 to help line her own pockets. The procedures, which
Blanchard said were necessary to avoid premature birth, often cost more than
Blanchard was also criticized for
funneling patients who needed special treatment to a healthcare company of which
she was part owner. Several hospitals and eventually the Louisiana State Board
of Medicine suspended Blanchard's privileges to practice medicine.
Also in 1994, Blanchard became involved in
a series of lawsuits related to her practice. Her privileges to work at East
Jefferson General Hospital, in suburban New Orleans, were suspended that same
year, according to court documents.
Two years later, two more hospitals
followed suit. Kenner Regional Hospital and Doctor's Hospital suspended
Blanchard's working privileges. In 1998, the Louisiana State Board of Medicine
suspended Blanchard's license to practice in the state, documents state.
"She held herself out to be a
high-risk specialist in obstetrics," said New Orleans attorney Rick Kelly,
who represented another New Orleans doctor who blew the whistle on Blanchard.
"That was not the case. Ultimately, she was not allowed to practice
medicine in Louisiana."
Tallahassee attorney Jeff G. Peters said
it was politics not performance that led to her 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
Peters said Blanchard was outspoken on
women's rights issues and that irked those who administered her punishments.
"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."
Keeping a secret
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 if 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.
Those officials said she kept her
suspensions 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."
St. Lucie County Healthy Start Executive
Director Sylvie Kramer attracted Trinity, a Deerfield Beach-based company, to
St. Lucie County.
Trinity received state Health Department
funds through Healthy 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. The previous
year Healthy Start had provided $68,000 to Trinity for medical services to the
Kramer suggested that at least two Trinity
doctors distance themselves from Blanchard. Those doctors continue to handle
poor and Medicaid patients in their private practices with financial support
from the Health Department through Healthy Start.
"How can we put our vulnerable
population our children in the hands of a woman like this?" Kramer asked.
"How can you get a medical license in one state, when it has been suspended
Prior suspensions discovered
During her tenure at Trinity, Blanchard
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 if 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, 2000, the Health Department
filed an administrative complaint against Blanchard after her prior suspensions
were discovered. In the complaint, the Health Department argues 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
"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, 2000. This was Blanchard's
first response to the allegations brought in the original complaint.
In the consent agreement, Blanchard
suggests several punishments for her actions. The punishments include 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 offer to have 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."
Peters said he expected the Board of
Medicine to approve the consent agreement.
The agreement was originally scheduled to
be discussed at a Board of Medicine meeting in December, but it was put off
until January. The issue is on hold indefinitely as Blanchard recovers from
injuries suffered in an apartment fire.
The fire that nearly killed Blanchard is
still under investigation. It broke out at 6:15 a.m. in her one-room apartment
at 637 North Second Street, on the corner of Seaway Drive. Blanchard was paying
$350 a month in rent.
Blanchard is currently listed in critical
condition at the Tampa General Hospital burn unit. She suffered second- and
third-degree burns over 75 percent of her body, according to fire district
When paramedics originally treated her at
the scene, she was pronounced dead and then revived. Her windpipe had collapsed
and a tube had to be inserted for her to breathe. "The investigation of a
cause is undetermined until all the pieces are put together," said St.
Lucie Fire District spokesman Capt. Buddy Emerson. "That means talking to
When asked whether a cause could ever be
determined if Blanchard is never able to talk with investigators, Emerson said
it was possible. Peters said Blanchard had complained about wiring problems in
An investigation by Nationwide Insurance,
the company that insured the apartment building, determined several bottles of
narcotics were found in Blanchard's 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."
Johns said officials from Trinity came to
Blanchard's apartment the day of the fire and removed personal items, including
her black Mazda RX-7 that still had a Louisiana license plate on it.
Johns said a Trinity employee went
straight for the freezer and removed a small item wrapped in foil without saying
what it was. Perdiue said Trinity employees went to the apartment because they
were concerned Blanchard's personal effects might be stolen.
Blanchard did live in a luxury condo on
the beach before moving into the low-rent apartment. Realtor Steve Patterson
said Blanchard rented villa number 723 in Ocean Village, 2400 S. Ocean Blvd, for
$1,000 per month from May to December. Patterson said the villas cost $600 a
week in season.
"She was a little different,"
Patterson said. "There was some erratic behavior."