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Doctor with troubled record recruits Vero patients

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of March 21, 2013)
Photo of Zandra Simm with a Bonati brochure.

A barrier island restaurant owner joined 17 other people March 9 for a medical presentation in a conference room at the Costa d’Este Beach Resort.

Their reason for being there was back pain. They hoped that a minimally invasive laser technique patented by Dr. Alfred Bonati, founder of the Bonati Spine Institute, would mean that a simple procedure at his clinic located north of Tampa in Hudson would put an end to their suffering.

Bonati and his team had come to the barrier island to talk to potential patients.

“I was so thankful I had found him and his laser procedure,” said Zandra Simm, 50, owner of Vinz wine bar and bistro on A1A.

But Simm, who along with about half of the attendees signed up for his spinal laser procedure on the spot, later had second thoughts.

A Vero Beach 32963 inspection of court documents and Department of Health records concerning Bonati turned up over 40 medical malpractice claims against him in the past 25 years, settlements, arbitration awards and jury verdicts against him involving millions of dollars, numerous disciplinary sanctions imposed by the Florida Department of Health and Florida Board of Medicine, and repeated misinformation and contradictions in his resume.

Warren Taylor, communications director for the Bonati Institute, said the doctor has done over 45,000 laser procedures and 94 percent of them have been successful. “You’re inevitably going to have problems and lawsuits with a few patients who have unrealistic expectations, “he said.

According to court and state documents, however, that laser procedure and other surgeries have left dozens of people either handicapped, incontinent or, at the very least, worse off than they were before they went to Bonati.

Despite verdicts and settlements against him, Bonati’s lawyers consistently have said the problems were not his fault.

Currently, he has an in-house lawyer at the Bonati Institute in Hudson who did not return a call from Vero Beach 32963.

“If a prospective patient was in my family, I’d advise them to be sticking to a major medical center rather than a spine clinic with glitzy internet advertising,” said Gary Roberts, a medical malpractice attorney who has taken Bonati to court numerous times on behalf of dozens of plaintiffs and won or obtained settlements for a number of them.

Bonati’s communication director, Taylor, said that Roberts has a “vendetta” against Bonati.

“Caring about good medicine is not a vendetta,” Roberts responded.

Simm is among hundreds of thousands of people across the country who suffer from chronic back pain. Like most, she is looking for relief without surgery, which is why she went to the Bonati seminar on a recent Saturday, with her MRI in hand.

Her first impression was “class act.” The Bonati staff of five was professional and friendly, she thought. The room at Costa d’Este was elegant. The audience was treated to juice, coffee and delicious apricot scones.

Using slides, Bonati explained how he developed and perfected “the Bonati Spine Procedure,” which requires a small, thumb-tip sized incision over the damaged area of the spine and the insertion of a small tube with a laser thread in it. Once the tube is next to a herniated disc, the laser is activated, shrinking the disc back to its proper size, explained the doctor.

“At this point in my career, I can guarantee 100 percent I can fix your problem,”  two people in the audience said the doctor assured everyone.

Prospective patients then lined up with their MRIs so Bonati could give each a personal, free consultation. When Bonati looked at Simm’s MRI, he exclaimed, “How can you be walking? How can you be standing? Yours is the largest I’ve seen. The disc is compressing 90 percent of the nerve. You must be in excruciating pain!”

Simm said her reaction was to feel vindicated. The orthopedic surgeon’s words proved she was not a cry baby but a real trooper, forging on under horrible circumstances. Furthermore, this doctor could cure her with a procedure that would only take 90 minutes. She then would go back to Vero Beach pain-free, on the same day.

A former patient in the audience gave a testimonial on what a positive difference Bonati had made in her life.

“How much?” Simm eagerly asked Bonati.

“It’s expensive – $20,000,” he said.

Simm said she didn’t have medical insurance and asked if she could pay over time. An assistant said Bonati would drop his fee for her to only $15,900.

She had a dire emergency, Bonati told her – “a pimple ready to pop.” He warned Simm she ran a very real risk of having a rupture at any moment and needing extensive surgery. Luckily, they could fit her in within two weeks.

“I was so relieved and grateful,” said Simm, who signed up for the 90-minute procedure.

Repeatedly, malpractice complaints filed by dozens of former Bonati patients say that “Bonati negligently exaggerated or misdiagnosed (their problems) in order to justify a course of expensive and aggressive surgical treatment and other treatment which was not medically indicated.”

In 2001, over 30 former patients who filed medical malpractice complaints against Bonati over 15 years received an $8 million settlement from him. Bonati claimed no liability for their medical problems.

Within months of the settlement, the Florida Board of Medicine filed a 63-count claim of malpractice involving more than a dozen patients.

The board asked the state to permanently revoke Bonati’s medical license. Instead, a deal was negotiated and Bonati was put on probation but allowed to keep his medical license, as long as he worked under the supervision of an orthopedic surgeon certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.

Bonati has never been board certified because he twice failed the certification exam, according to court records. He is, however, certified by three unrecognized organizations, one of which he founded.

Bonati’s communication director responded: “We have two board certified neurosurgeons on staff who work with Dr. Bonati and also do procedures. The instrument Dr. Bonati uses (the Holmium Yag Laser) was FDA approved in 1991. Again, 94 percent of the procedures are successful.”

As part of the deal with the state to keep his medical license, Bonati gave $50,000 to a program for poor people with medical needs and paid state prosecution fees of $116,000. By 2005, when the terms of his probation ended, he returned to practicing without supervision and was  again sued for medical malpractice. That case is on-going.

He has since been sued for medical malpractice several more times.

A 2007 lawsuit against Bonati filed in federal court said that in 2004, a man who went to Bonati for relief from neck pain was operated on six times in four months, but remained “permanently, totally disabled.”

A 2009 malpractice lawsuit, which is on-going, said that Bonati sliced the covering of a 41-year-old woman’s spine, causing her spinal fluid to leak. After 13 surgeries to stem the leak, she was still in excruciating pain and had no control over her bladder and bowels.

“The number of operations ...  is in keeping with a pattern of practice which includes multiple operations on virtually each patient seen and treated at the Bonati Institute,” said the on-going lawsuit.

In February 2010, an arbitration panel awarded almost $12 million to a couple who showed that multiple unnecessary operations at the Bonati Institute left the husband unable to walk.

That same year, state Department of Health prosecutors filed a case alleging that a series of Bonati operations left a 55-year-old man in worse shape than before he went to Bonati for neck and back pain in 2004. That case is pending, as is another 2010 medical malpractice case filed by a Missouri couple.

In that case, Bonati operated on the wife. The suit says the surgery caused “a marked and profound loss of movement in the lower extremities and the loss of bowel and bladder control.”

In late February, an arbitration panel ordered Bonati to pay $2 million to a Hillsborough woman after five unnecessary surgeries in 2007 left her with permanent damage. Bonati’s lawyer blamed the problems on the woman’s “own negligence.”

Currently, Bonati is a defendant in four malpractice lawsuits.

That differs greatly from the picture portrayed on his web site.

Depending on which resume one sees, Bonati, 73, was born in either Italy or Chile in either 1939 or 1942.  His sworn depositions in past medical malpractice suits reveal that he was born in Chile in 1939. They also reveal he made up several universities that he has put on resumes – the University of Rome and the University of Naples, and that he did not go to the University of Cadiz, Spain, as a website says.

He graduated from medical school, apparently, at the University of Seville in 1969 – even though the diploma he submitted to the court shows that dates were manually altered.

His list of medical residencies is also problematic because he does not say he dropped out of five of them before completion. Also, two prominent physicians testified under oath that they did not write or sign the recommendation letters Bonati attributed to them.

Currently, he has no medical malpractice insurance and is not affiliated with any credentialed hospital. He is licensed to practice medicine in Florida and North Carolina.

Wanting a second opinion, Simm had an appointment with a board certified neurosurgeon in Stuart, a few days ago. That doctor looked at Simm’s MRI and was perplexed at what Bonati had meant about an imminent rupture.

“He told me it didn’t make sense to him,” said Simm.

She has since cancelled the procedure with Bonati and is following a conservative course recommended by her new doctor, which consists mainly of spinal decompression, which is a form of traction.

“Close call,” she said.

Despite the multi-million-dollar awards and settlements against him, Bonati would appear to have done well financially. He has claimed to own original paintings by Degas, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Raphael.