Critical Condition

AIDS researcher of high repute. Proprietor of a glamorous Miami Beach spa. Target of a federal criminal probe. The many sides of Dr. Lionel Resnick.

Former employees relate such recollections with no lack of irony. Because Imagen, they say, had actually begun as a down-to-earth concept.

"It was supposed to be this whole family attitude," says one ex-staffer who, like several other former employees interviewed for this story, requested anonymity. "We were working toward a common goal: to promote alternative health. There were going to be classes and seminars for us to learn from the doctors on staff. We were going to be full-time employees, with insurance benefits and everything. But none of that came to pass. The Resnicks just wanted do skin care and make money."

One of the ways Lionel Resnick made money, say former employees and clients, was to bill insurance providers for office visits or procedures that never took place, an allegation that Resnick, through his attorneys, vehemently denies.

Jean-Claude Simon is one patient who has taken issue with Resnick's billing. In early 1994, Simon went to Imagen for a massage. He says Resnick told him the procedure would be covered by his insurance because Simon suffered from a skeletal ailment. Upon arriving at the spa, Simon says, he was told he would have to see the doctor. "I didn't want to, but I said, 'Fine. Whatever,'" he recalls. "After examining me, Resnick told me he wanted to take biopsies of two small areas on my back. I didn't think it was necessary, but I allowed him to and went off to get my massage."

When Simon received his benefits statement from Medicare, he was shocked to find Resnick had billed $265 for the visit and had listed two procedures, "electrocautery of skin tags" and "destruction of skin lesions," which Simon says were never performed. "The only thing I wanted was my massage, and that wasn't even listed on the bill," he notes.

On his second visit for a massage, Simon remembers, Resnick was not at the spa and the receptionist demanded a cash payment. Simon protested. Rather than argue, Simon says, Fern Resnick told him his massage would be complimentary. "But lo and behold, my next Medicare statement included a charge for $75 for an outpatient visit to Lionel Resnick," he complains. "That's when I knew something bad was going on, and I never went back."

Although they don't want their names published, several other former patients tell similar stories. One man says he came in for a $45 facial and wound up receiving a statement indicating his insurance company had been billed $320. "I had no idea what the charges could be, because I never even saw the doctor," he says.

An elderly woman claims she grew suspicious of Resnick's bills after receiving statements showing dozens of charges for lesion removal. "I only had five lesions removed in all my visits," the client asserts. "The reason I went to Imagen was for glycolic peels [a facial treatment]." The woman says she notified her insurance company of her concern but has heard nothing back.

Former employees say it was a common practice for Resnick to refer his dermatological patients to Imagen.

"I was going to see Dr. Resnick for acne-medicine prescriptions and special injections but he kept urging me to come to the spa," recalls one former patient. "He told me not to worry, that it would be free. Then I started getting these invoices back from my insurance with charges for things like flat wart removal. Well, I've never had flat warts."

New Times also has obtained a number of pages from Imagen appointment books that list "medically indicated" services, meaning those which are billable to insurance companies. These include a number of procedures that are generally considered to be cosmetic, such as facials, body wraps, massages, and something called "Vichy exfoliation."

Through his attorneys, Lionel Resnick disputes any wrongdoing in his billing for Imagen. "The insurance-fraud allegations are insane," says Richard Sharpstein. "They are a figment of someone's overactive imagination, probably goaded by disgruntled former employees who were terminated because of their own incompetence. It's obvious that, in light of the Mount Sinai situation, the worms are coming out of the woodwork to besmirch the good name of Lionel Resnick."

For those who have known Resnick over the years, however, the most striking aspect of his decision to launch Imagen was his coincident social metamorphosis.

"Lionel was always this quiet fellow, and in the last couple of years he and Fern have undergone this Hollywood transformation," observes one longtime acquaintance. "Their names show up in the social columns. I see Fern on the cover of these upscale magazines looking like Ivana Trump or something. And they've got this wall at Imagen covered with celebrity photos. Them posing with Fabio and that kind of thing. I guess it's all promotions, but I wonder if they haven't gotten a little caught up in the glitz."

Abe Resnick has taken his youngest son's downfall pretty hard. So have his wife Sara, and son Jimmy, who used to proudly and frequently refer to Lionel as "my brother, the doctor."

"This whole thing has thrown the family into emotional turmoil," says attorney Richard Sharpstein. "To see his youngest son and his own name smeared in the paper has killed Abe. Here's a man who survived World War II and the political turmoil in Cuba, who's had to build his life up from scratch twice. He's a very proud man. And he feels a great amount of pride in Lionel, who went out there and made his name on his own."

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