Originally created 04/17/99

Doctors want 'ambulance chasers' stopped



A day or two after a man crashed into Claudine Choice's vehicle, she received a call from someone who offered to help and recommended a particular chiropractor in town.

She went to see the chiropractor who recommended a certain lawyer on her second visit -- he even called the attorney from his office and handed her the telephone, Mrs. Choice said.

She was assured that the insurance company that represented the driver at fault in her accident would take care of her medical bills, and the lawyer sought about $9,000 for pain and suffering.

A year later, Mrs. Choice didn't get any money from the insurance company. She did get sued by the chiropractor, subjected to a collection agency, and became about $4,000 poorer.

"I got nothing. I was sick. I just couldn't believe it," Mrs. Choice said.

Such behavior by a few Augusta area chiropractors led a group of about 18 chiropractors to hire a lawyer to try to end what they believe are immoral and unethical practices.

"It's embarrassing professionally for us. We are also concerned for the community. We have a responsibility for those in the community who use our services," said Robert Kalensky of DeGraaf Chiropractic Clinics.

Attorney Victor Hawk agreed to help. "It's hurting people who have legitimate injuries and complaints," he said.

JoAnn Farmer has a similar horror story.

"This has been a nightmare," she said of what happened after she and her son were struck by a car on their way to church one Sunday morning last year.

Two days after the accident, she got a call from a man who said he was a lawyer, and he recommended she see a chiropractor in town. He even offered to call her a taxi to take her to the chiropractor's office.

Terribly stiff and sore, Ms. Farmer decided to go see the chiropractor, who placed her, and later her son, on daily treatments. "I did start feeling better," she said.

But the insurance company became her biggest nemesis. It refused to pay any of her medical bills -- those from the chiropractor topped $5,000, she said.

Her lawyer explained that she wasn't the reason the insurance company has balked. It was because of the chiropractor, Ms. Farmer said.

Accident victims are lured into a false sense of security that the insurance company represented the one who caused the accident and will pay for everything, Mr. Hawk said.

But when the insurance company sees certain suspect health care professionals and/or attorneys involved, they won't pay anything, and the victims end up paying, he said.

It's unethical and illegal for doctors, chiropractors and lawyers to solicit clients through the use of "runners," people who drum up business for the professionals for a fee, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said.

Mr. Oxendine's fraud division has investigated and prosecuted chiropractors, doctors and runners, he said. "We haven't got a lawyer yet, but we're working on it," he said.

"Runners are people in cahoots with lawyers, doctors and chiropractors. For a fee, runners go out to find people in accidents," Mr. Oxendine said. One of the first places they go is to the local police or sheriff's department to collect accident victims' names from police reports.

Two days after Beth Attaway was hit by another driver, a man called to tell her the accident report was ready for her to pick up at the sheriff's department. He said he was with a volunteer service for people involved in accidents, and he talked to her about soft tissue injuries, Ms. Attaway said. He recommended a chiropractor, who recommended a lawyer.

"I got the feeling it was a racket," she said. "But I do know I was injured."

"A good runner can make a lot more money than you and I make," Mr. Oxendine said. His fraud division is concentrating on catching runners in attempts to reach the professionals they work for, he said.

"You've got to get to the top of the food chain," Mr. Oxendine said.

Insurance companies are working with state agencies like Mr. Oxendine's, said Robert Strickland, a team manger of special investigations for State Farm Insurance. "It is common in Georgia to see doctors and/or attorneys buying accident reports and contacting people.

"Yes, we do know who they are," Mr. Strickland said. And when their names come up on claims, those cases get a closer look, he said.

False claims and inflated claims -- an estimated 36 percent of all claims -- cost all insurance customers about $200 a year in higher premiums, Mr. Strickland said.

Insurance companies are beginning to fight back by filing civil Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization lawsuits. Such lawsuits are seen as a good deterrent, because a successful RICO case can bring in triple damages.

"It is an option, and it is a deterrent. It is being looked at becoming more widespread," Mr. Strickland said.

The best action, Mr. Strickland and Mr. Oxendine said, is for people approached by runners to contact someone in the insurance company, Mr. Oxendine's office or the disciplinary boards that oversee Georgia professions.

Sandy Hodson covers courts for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.