MIAMI –– Ricardo Martinez said he became obsessed with looking perfect. He decided to get liposuction and shelled out $6,500 for the procedure at an upscale North Miami clinic. It was a good deal, he initially thought, since most places were charging a whopping $18,000.
But that decision, he said, almost cost him his life.
The plastic surgeon, who was eventually disciplined and fined, accidentally perforated his intestines in the 2013 surgery and he ended up in the hospital for three weeks, fighting to stay alive.
"Living in Miami, model city … I just became infatuated with the billboards, the clinic, and what I thought I could end up looking like,” Martinez said.
South Florida’s obsession with beauty has made it a top destination for cheap plastic surgery – but it has also drawn a growing number of centers that exploit those seeking smaller waistlines or more noticeable assets. Dozens of people have been seriously injured – some have even died – at the hands of unlicensed doctors with shady practices.
Now, the state is trying to crack down on unscrupulous plastic surgery clinics after several patient deaths that have attracted national attention. Florida State Sen. Anitere Flores sponsored a bill that became law giving the state the power to close a clinic or take back its registration if there's reason to believe the facility is dangerous to customers.
"Right now we ask patients to do homework before they go in and get a surgery like this done. But because we haven't had these laws in place, it was really difficult for them to figure out where the problematic clinics were,” Flores said. “So now we'll have a uniform, very high standard, that all clinics across the state will be held to, and so you won't have that fear that has existed previously.”
From tummy tucks to breast implants to botox, you name it, people from across the world travel to South Florida to go under the knife. And a growing cadre of clinics have popped up to meet demand — but not all have the qualifications and expertise to do so.
According to an investigation published by USA Today, in the past 10 years at least 13 women have died after surgeries at these clinics operated by felons. About a dozen others were hospitalized with critical injuries. Several unlicensed clinics were forced to shut down only to reopen weeks later under a different name.
The new law plans to make sure they do not open their doors again.
Under the new law, Florida will impose a $500 fine per day for non-compliance and will sanction those that aren't licensed or not up to standards. Both the doctors and the clinic must register with the Florida Department of Health, and any clinic or physician found guilty of malpractices cannot work or operate for five years.
The new Florida law is part of a greater effort to tighten regulations on Florida's skyrocketing cosmetic surgery industry. Flores said regulators now have stronger tools than many other places.
The state joins seven others, and Washington, D.C., that have varying levels of penalties to keep clinics in check. They can range from fines and criminal penalties, like in California, to getting your license revoked in Pennsylvania.
"Now we have not just our state, but other states all looking to Florida as what will hopefully be a model for how to regulate these office clinic surgery clinic centers in a way that is uniform and that is a very high standard," Flores said.
But some think the law goes too far and could impact legitimate businesses.
“It is a knee-jerk reaction, I think – five years is a bit much. You can be drunk driving, you can commit all kinds of malpractice. That is just way too much for something that might be a minor infringement,” said one doctor from the Florida Cosmetic Surgery Center, in reference to the five-year penalty rule that would take away a clinic’s license. The doctor did not want to be identified.
Flores said the law is needed to save lives. She only regrets more wasn’t done to save those killed by botched plastic surgeries.
"While this law would never bring your loved one back,” she said, “there is a small sense of vindication knowing that your loved one's death wasn't in vain."
The bill passed in May. The governor signed it into law in early June and the stricter standards will take effect in January.
As for Martinez, he ended up filing a lawsuit against his doctor for $1 million. The doctor filed for bankruptcy shortly afterward and reopened her businesses under a new name.
"Now, we'll be able to stop that," Flores said, "because the Department of Health will not issue a license to anyone for at least five years in these horrible cases."