Tired of FBI cloud, family doctor closing practice

Dr. Ona Colasante is closing her family practice clinic serving many east side residents two years after an FBI raid, the reason for which she says she still does not know, shown Monday, January 28, 2013 at the Colasante Clinic at 810 NW 16th Avenue in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013 at 9:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 28, 2013 at 9:51 p.m.

On June 16, 2011, the day that the FBI raided Dr. Ona Colasante's family practice clinic in Gainesville, Michelle Newberry was going to the clinic for a stress test.

The FBI turned away Colasante's long-standing patient. "Apparently, that was my stress test," Newberry said Monday, at her last check-up at the Colasante clinic at 810 NW 16th Ave, which closes on Thursday. The FBI investigation is still ongoing, and Colasante, 56, decided to close because she said the investigation has injured her reputation and finances. Meanwhile, at least some of her patients hate to see her go.

"I'm really going to miss the environment here," Newberry said. "You just felt very comfortable — like a family."

"I think part of the problem with the medical world is that it's so caught up in regulations that old-fashioned medical practice is suffering," Newberry continued, adding that Colasante does lab work and X-rays in the same visit. "I like the all-around comprehensive nature of the clinic."

For patients like Carol Neff, that has been both life-saving and life-improving. Colasante X-rayed a spot on Neff's lung that turned out to be lung cancer, and she has helped Neff manage her depression.

"She's really good at the big things, but also the everyday things," Neff said.

Colasante's signature touch is asking her patients a lot of questions — not just about their physical health, but everything that might affect it.

"A family doctor pays attention to the whole world around the patient," Colasante said. "If you are going through a divorce, I understand why you have an outbreak of shingles or get sick."

Colasante says she still has not been told the precise reason for the raid and investigation. She suspects it might have something to do with the sale of her previous clinic in Hawthorne.

The Sun reported in August that Colasante believes the investigation regards Medicare fraud, based on questions asked of former patients and employees in Hawthorne.

"The government has misconstrued my practice as a place with a problem," she said, adding that an independent consultant from New York took a representative, random sampling of her patients' charts and "could not find anything that came close to a federal or civil crime," Colasante said.

The FBI confirmed that the case was still under investigation but would not disclose further details. One of Colasante's lawyers, Gilbert A. Schaffnit, said there have been no updates to the case since The Sun reported in August that Schaffnit had been meeting with federal prosecutors in Tallahassee.

Just a few weeks after the raid, Colasante's bank accounts were frozen. Several staff members have left since the FBI raid.

"I feel as though I can't run the practice in the way that's been best for patients in the past 20 years," Colasante said, explaining her philosophy of care: "I don't think family doctors should be referral centers. If you have an abnormal pap they send you to a gynecologist; asthma, a pulmonologist. But family doctors can do 80 percent of what needs to be done."

And that's especially important for people who might not otherwise be able to afford specialty services, she added. Many of Colasante's patients are on Medicaid.

"When you come here they treat you like you are somebody. It doesn't matter if you are on Medicaid," Yolanda Rutledge, 41, said. "I think it's (the closure) really unfair for the east side of Gainesville. It's going to hurt a lot of people."

As much as Colasante's patients mourn her upcoming absence, and she herself hates to go, the closure of her clinic will allow her to pursue a long-standing dream of helping out another underserved population — adults with autism and their families.

As the mother of four boys — one of whom is autistic — Colasante has long recognized the needs of autistic adults and their parents. She will pursue opening an "Autism Farm" south of Hawthorne.

As for Colasante's office supplies and equipment — which, among other things, include a bone dosimetry machine, X-rays, eight to nine big exam tables, syringes, medications and 16 computers — she is donating them to health clinics in Guatemala, where Colasante has visited rural clinics and participated in tropical medical conferences.

Celeste Segreste, a nurse practitioner at the Colasante clinic, also has worked with a group in Guatemala called Paramedics for Children, where much of the equipment and supplies will go. Segreste will be in the Peace Corps somewhere in Central or South America next spring.

Segreste, who has worked with Colasante since 2006, said she feels "a hodgepodge of emotions" about the clinic closing.

"For selfish reasons I would like to see the clinic stay open. There are so many old patients that have followed her … who also would have never have had access to these types of services all under one roof," Segreste said.

"On the other hand, Dr. Colasante had a dream (the Autism Farm) so I'm extremely happy that she will be able to continue with that, and serve another underserved (population)," Segreste continued, adding that at 61, she herself is thrilled to finally pursue her own long-standing dream of helping the underserved in the Peace Corps.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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