Dr. Asa Andrew may be one of the best-known "natural medicine" practitioners in Tennessee, if not the region. Here's but a taste of the cachet he wields in the Bible Belt's buckle with a largely religious consumer base: Dave Ramsey, the wildly popular, faith-based personal finance guru and radio host, has given Dr. Andrew his gold-standard imprimatur.
Dr. Andrew's popular radio call-in show, Dr. Asa On Call, where he dishes "commonsense" medical advice — leavened heavily with an aversion to pharmaceuticals — continues to expand from Nashville's WLAC-1510 AM to small and midsize markets, from Knoxville to Lansing, Mich., to Aurora, Colo. He claims a million listeners. He has appeared on The 700 Club and Good Morning America, and appears Tuesday mornings on Fox 17 as a health correspondent. In 2007, he released his book, Empowering Your Health, which promotes his wellness dogma — and his celebrity.
"For many years, I have been helping people just like you with every kind of health condition such as: migraine headaches, allergies, high cholesterol, arthritis, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, diabetes, balancing hormones, losing weight, increasing energy, and just plain living the life you were designed to live," Andrew writes on his website, with a motivational speaker's can-do fervor. "I help folks find the best health insurance policy available in America today, which is making healthy lifestyle choices, choosing health."
Like pilgrims, patients travel across the country to his Center for Natural Medicine, across the street from the Belle Meade Shopping Plaza. They often have at least a few things in common. Some suffer from debilitating diseases for which there is no cure. Some seek a path to health using what they believe are "natural" remedies. Most are skeptical of pharmaceuticals, vaccines and all the trappings of "the medical establishment." Or because Dr. Andrew's faith is the cornerstone of his public identity, they're attracted to a provider who openly shares their values.
But patients and former employees — including health-care professionals, middle managers and rank-and-file office workers — tell the Scene that Dr. Andrew's public persona doesn't match the reality of his private practice. They allege, among other things, supplement dilution, price gouging, violating U.S. Customs and Food and Drug Administration guidelines, and insurance fraud. Patients with potentially serious diseases and disorders came to his clinic, they say, and left with advice from a healer whose credentials are shrouded in mystery.
A detailed list of questions outlining these allegations was sent to Dr. Andrew before press time. A week later, Dr. Andrew issued a brief statement through a Los Angeles public-relations firm. "I am deeply troubled by the hurtful, false and misleading allegations that have been presented to me," Dr. Andrew said in the statement — the full text of which runs in the accompanying sidebar — although he did not address many of the specific questions.
"In my opinion," he stated, "they are the work of a few disgruntled former employees with ulterior motives."
Indeed, the charges might be easy to dismiss from a couple of disgruntled ex-workers. But nearly 20 former employees have spoken with the Scene regarding their concerns. So high is personnel turnover at the Center for Natural Medicine that patients who went on a weekly basis say they rarely, if ever, saw the same people working behind the counter. Many former employees who spoke with the Scene say they quit in disgust.
What's more, Dr. Andrew may have anticipated their qualms. At least one former worker claims he was fired for refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement — including the condition that if the employee ever said anything negative about him in the public domain, the employee agreed to pay a penalty of $75,000. Almost all of Dr. Andrew's employees say they were forced to sign this agreement under threat of dismissal, a testament to the pains he's taken to maintain his reputation.
For that reason, most would speak only on condition of anonymity, fearful that Dr. Andrew would make good on the agreement and draw them into a costly lawsuit none could afford. A few, however, spoke on the record — evidently feeling they couldn't afford to stay silent.
Who is Dr. Asa Andrew? In his book and on his website, he appears as a stout hulk with forearms as thick as ham hocks and a power lifter's bull neck. He puts forth an origin story worthy of a Marvel superhero — a saga that actually begins with superhuman feats.
It starts in the mid-'90s, when Andrew was invited to join The Power Team — a traveling motivational speaking crew whose beefy members would espouse Jesus and abstention from drugs, while engaging in displays of extreme strength. With Christian rock blaring in the background, they'd rip phone books in half, break concrete blocks, bend steel rods and brandish massive metal broadswords.
Dr. Andrew was the smallest guy on the burly team. So he overate to gain size. Before long, he says, he was diabetic. He had "lifestyled his way into this health challenge of diabetes," he wrote. By changing his eating habits, however, and applying his own personal brand of natural medicine, he "lifestyled" his way out, thus curing himself. The rest is history.
Less clear, though, is the medical history that brought the former jock to his current fame. Dr. Andrew is a licensed chiropractor. He is not, however, licensed as a medical doctor — a fact that might surprise the radio listeners who tune in to hear him give medical advice nightly. Or those who see him in scrubs on television. Or those who have read his book, in which he claims to be a "board-certified physician."
According to Candace Blazek, a former staffer whose account is corroborated by other ex-employees, the clinic's staff was never to discuss Dr. Andrew's credentials with inquiring customers. Above all, they were never to refer to him as a chiropractor — a term known around the office as the dreaded "C-word."
"We weren't supposed to answer the question," Blazek says. "We were supposed to avoid the question as best we could, and if we had to, go get his attorney Chris [Schmidt] to answer the question if they demanded it. And if it got to that point, most of the time the patient was not going to get an answer."
If they persist, according to former employees, they are told he's sitting for his medical boards. What they won't be told is where. A bio on The 700 Club website offers a list of his credentials, including a B.S. in psychology from Florida State University and a chiropractic degree from Life University in Marietta, Ga. As for his medical degree, though, a cryptic note says only, "Doctor of Medicine including residency 2010."
But at least two staffers, including a former employee who made travel arrangements to the Caribbean for him, assert that his alma mater is the University of Health Sciences in Antigua. According to the state Department of Health, its medical degree does not meet the criteria for licensure in Tennessee (and a number of other states). The Antiguan university declined to verify whether Dr. Andrew is either alumnus or student.
"My credentials are as follows: I have a doctorate and am currently licensed in Tennessee as a chiropractic physician," Dr. Andrew told the Scene in his statement. "I also hold a Diplomate in Nutrition and am currently in the final stages of completing my clinical rotations for my medical degree (MD)." He did not specify where.
To be sure, considerable controversy exists over the practice of naturopathy, a field that prescribes natural remedies to facilitate the body's ability to heal itself. Proponents call it a treatment that works with instead of against the body's natural processes, employing commonsense approaches to diet and health. Opponents say it lacks the hard scientific grounding and rigor of conventional medicine, and they argue that it's easy to fudge.
As proof, critics cite horror stories like that of Ben Goldacre, the "Bad Science" columnist for The Guardian, who secured a 2004 certification in the American Association of Nutritional Consultants for a practitioner named Henrietta Goldacre — in truth, his dead cat. By coincidence, that association's former leader, naturopath Wendell Whitman, was founder of Indiana's Trinity College of Natural Health — which awarded Dr. Asa Andrew his degree in naturopathic medicine.
Naturopathy has traditionally been outlawed in Tennessee. This year, however, state legislators gave its practitioners an opening by allowing naturopaths to sell supplements. The catch is, they must not offer treatment or diagnoses for injuries or illnesses. Furthermore, they must provide a disclaimer stating they aren't qualified to provide that kind of patient care.
Yet according to Sherry Hows, a licensed practical nurse who formerly ran Dr. Andrew's X-ray and clinical departments, he may have overstepped those bounds. Among his patients, Hows recalls, was a young woman who suffered from longstanding stomach problems. According to Hows, Dr. Andrew told the patient she should engage in a 10-day fast as a way to flush her system — even though her medical history included anorexia.
"You don't do that with a patient with a history of anorexia," Hows tells the Scene. "I told him there needed to be some communication with the primary care provider. That's just insane!" The young woman, Hows says, soon left the practice.
In another case, a woman brought her daughter in because of dizziness and fainting spells. In the clinic, the young woman passed out and struck her head on some furniture — at worst, an indication of a potentially serious disorder. According to Hows, however, she was treated at the clinic as usual. Hows believes the girl should have been immediately referred to a specialist or her primary care physician.
"That's absolutely the first thing that should have been done with this patient," Hows says, "rather than, 'Let's give you $500 in supplements.' "
According to Hows, Dr. Andrew was similarly lax about notifying patients who may have been diabetic. Part of every new patient orientation is what employees say is a $2,500 blood panel that tests everything from blood-sugar levels to mineral deficiencies. Yet no one was required to notify the patients of their lab results, Hows says, if they hadn't already scheduled a follow-up appointment.
"With these diabetic patients," she cautions, "you're talking about loss of eyesight, loss of limbs if those blood sugars continue to go out of control like that."
However much patients may complain about three-hour waits and unreturned phone calls, Dr. Andrew's clinic has profited from a fast-growing trade: dietary supplements. Supplement sales are big business in the United States. In 2007 the industry's trade publication, Nutrition Business Journal, estimated dietary supplements grossed $23 billion a year. This year, estimates put that figure as high as $26 billion, with half of all adults having at least a few in the medicine cabinet.
Not surprisingly, former employees, including Center for Natural Medicine supplement-store managers, say the sale of supplements is the cornerstone of Dr. Andrew's business. On a very good week, they say, the store can bring in as much as $26,000.
But Dr. Andrew's patients may not have been getting what they expected in the brown tincture bottles. According to former supplement-store managers, the products were being mixed in imprecise proportions and watered down.
"When I came in, there was one [employee] in charge of the mixing," says a former manager of the clinic's supplement store. When he asked the employee to show him how to mix and rebottle, the employee said to " 'put about this much in there, then you squirt about this much in there, then you put the cap on.' She said it was a combination of distilled water and grain alcohol, which is actually used in some holistic medications as a kind of enhancer, but it was being mixed with stuff that already had that in there."
In other words, the former store manager says, these were supplements the manufacturer had no expectation of being diluted.
Another employee who was actually in charge of diluting and rebottling some of the supplements tells the Scene that there was little training involved in the job.
"The reasoning for it, according to [Dr. Andrew], was that it needed to be diluted to absorb better in your system," the former employee says. "I mixed something with water, then I put it in the jar and I'd add four drops of the supplement in it.
"And I'm thinking, 'Only four drops, and all this stuff is fake stuff and the rest is only four drops?' It didn't seem right — but then again, I'm not an expert at this."
After the former supplement-store manager confronted Dr. Andrew, he says, the rebottling and mixing operation was moved off premises. He was never told where, though he had his suspicions. When the store was running low, the employee says Dr. Andrew's vice president of operations and legal counsel, Chris Schmidt, insisted on being the one to make arrangements for re-supply, refusing to allow the skeptical manager to contact the new "bottling lab."
"So I'd call him, put in the order and then his wife would show up, literally with bottles with Scotch tape on them with the labels of what's in them," he says. "No professional lab hands out stuff in reused boxes from the office."
One day Schmidt's teenage daughters came to the office, the former manager claims, so he decided to elicit more information from them. He said that he praised the girls on the good work they'd done on his most recent order. They responded, "Yeah, we do a good job."
Yet another former supplement-store manager asked rhetorically, "Were their hands clean? Was it a sterile environment? And people are taking this medicine?"
If some of the supplements were being diluted, the price certainly didn't reflect it. Talk to Dr. Andrew's patients, and one of the first things they'll discuss are the prices charged for the supplements. June Abney and her husband decided to forgo chemotherapy after it was found that her husband's lung cancer was inoperable. They went to see Dr. Andrew instead.
"The first time we picked up the supplements, we should have just said, 'I'm sorry, we can't do that,' because it was about a thousand dollars each," Abney tells the Scene. "My husband was on about 20 different [supplements]."
Another patient, a healthy woman in her mid-30s who came to Dr. Andrew with sinus issues, tells the Scene she was prescribed 18 different supplements totaling more than $1,000. These included a $35 "ionic footbath" that former patients and employees report is offered to nearly all patients. The footbath purports to draw heavy metals through the feet using an electrical current, thus detoxifying the body. The water is supposed to change colors, representing the toxins being expressed from the body. A Guardian Unlimited science reporter found that the color change in the water was actually caused by oxidized iron, not toxins, from the corroding electrodes.
If 18 different supplements sounds like a huge amount to ingest, especially for a woman in her mid-30s, that's because it is, say medical professionals.
"If somebody's in the situation where they're getting prescribed that many supplements, if there's something that wrong with them, they probably need to see [a medical doctor]," says Jamie Pope, a licensed dietician and Vanderbilt University professor. "So much of that goes out your urine, but not all. It can still tax your kidneys. It can still cause some [gastrointestinal] upset."
Still, even for the Food and Drug Administration, it's difficult to track the actual number of people reporting adverse reactions to dietary supplements. In the early '90s, the United States Congress began considering legislation that would strengthen the FDA's ability to crack down on products with fraudulent health claims. Under intense pressure from the dietary supplement industry, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which took an entirely different tack: From then on, supplements would be regulated as food — which is to say, there'd be very little regulation at all.
The new legislation essentially turned the regulatory landscape into the Wild West, placing the onus on the purveyors of dietary supplements to ensure that their products are safe and that their advertisements are honest. A 2002 Harris poll showed a majority of us believe the FDA approves supplements before they go to market. Not true. It took a neutered FDA years to get products containing ephedra off the market, even after a number of deaths and thousands of adverse reactions were reported.
Rules regarding what statements can be made about a particular supplement's health benefits are vague. Almost anything other than the most outlandish promise is considered valid so long as the label states that the product isn't intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition, and that the claims on the bottle haven't been evaluated by the FDA.
The loophole allows the products Dr. Andrew sells, for example, to tiptoe around the language by carefully claiming to "help with the symptoms" of complicated ills like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, depression and "Bipolar issues" — if the disclaimer is somewhere on the label.
Naturally, the supplement market became a bonanza as suppliers found themselves off the leash. At the time of the bill's passage in 1994, according to a Government Accountability Office report, a mere 4,000 dietary supplement products were available. By 2008, the report found, some 75,000 flooded the market.
Nevertheless, in 2007 the FDA was granted the power to force supplement manufacturers to report adverse reactions and injuries caused by their products. The effect was dramatic and immediate. Reports went up threefold, according to the GAO report — nearly 1,000 incidences of serious reactions in 10 months. The report says the FDA suspects the actual number of moderate and serious reactions is closer to 50,000.
A former receptionist at Dr. Andrew's clinic tells the Scene it wasn't unusual for patients to call in complaining of reactions to the mega-doses of supplements. "I had patients calling in with nosebleeds and rashes and chronic fatigue and diarrhea," she says. "I don't think there's malice behind it. I just think it's all about money."
And profit margins were indeed massive, according to one of the clinic's former supplement-store managers. "There were a couple of things we'd buy for $5 and sell for $80," the ex-employee says. "Some of that is legal if you have a licensing agreement and an agreement to do private labeling.
"But on some of these things he was doing with some labs, he was just soaking bottles in a sink, peeling the labels off and putting his on and upping the price about 800 percent."
Vanessa Gregory was billed as a nutritionist at Dr. Andrew's clinic for more than two years. She says she confronted him when she found out about the alleged dilution and inflated pricing.
"They're taking a bottle for $8 that has 20 to 30 droppers-full in it and he gets one dropper-full, dilutes it with water and alcohol — and grain alcohol at that, when he has his patients off grains — and then he sells that one bottle for $79," Gregory tells the Scene.
These supplements were ordered from various companies inside and outside of the United States. It's how they got here, former employees claim, that might raise eyebrows at the federal level. According to emails obtained by the Scene between Dr. Andrew's company and Metabolics Ltd., a supplier in England, supplements imported into the United States were intentionally mislabeled to "avoid problems." For example, Ionic Silver — a supplement identified by the FDA as a substance known to cause kidney damage — would be labeled as Ionic Sulfur.
Such a falsification would violate import laws, says Kari L. Batey, acting director of the FDA's investigation branch. In addition, "to avoid problems with U.S. Customs/FDA," the emails indicate, the invoices would quote an inaccurately low declared value. Instead, they were labeled as "educational seminar samples," when clearly they were intended for commercial sale.
A patient, identified as Laura, had taken her mysteriously ill son to Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Cleveland Clinic to no avail. No one could figure it out. He had diarrhea for a year and a half, horrible stomach pain and reflux, and weight loss on his small frame. Tests showed it wasn't cancer or ulcerative colitis, Crohn's or any of the usual suspects. So she tried Dr. Andrew.
Laura, an occupational therapist, watched as Dr. Andrew ran his fingers down the boy's spine, delicately checking each vertebra. After five to 10 minutes, he left, she says.
When she checked out at the front desk, she told the receptionist her co-pay was usually $20. For this visit, she says, she was told it would be $400. Being familiar with this mode of health care, she asked to see an itemized bill. When she reviewed it at home, it all was explained — an X-ray and the examination — except for an additional $125 charge for additional "manipulation," the terminology used by chiropractors for aligning the spine and "skeletal system."
"He did not do a single manipulation on my son," she claims. "Very exorbitant billing." She says she asked for an updated bill, but one was never sent.
This doesn't surprise Keri Montilli, a former patient coordinator at Dr. Andrew's clinic, who says she left due to pregnancy. "People were getting billed for things they didn't have done," she tells the Scene. "And a lot of the times they'd say it has to go through billing this way for insurance to cover it."
A receptionist who handled the clinic's insurance claims said patients would get paperwork indicating they'd received a manual chiropractic adjustment when they insisted "he'd never touched me."
"We would go to Dr. Andrew and say that the patients are getting really hot about this. What are we supposed to say at the window?" she recalls asking. "And he would say 'While examining them, I would adjust them and they wouldn't even realize it.' I can remember at the time thinking, I go to the chiropractor monthly. You can't tell me you get adjusted and don't know it."
In this cynical age, people have hardened themselves to resist the come-ons of quick-fix peddlers and health-care hucksters. For some of Dr. Andrew's former employees and patients alike — drawn by the faith-based appeal of his ministry of better living — the conduct they've encountered at the Center for Natural Medicine is doubly disillusioning.
Raven Willard, 62, is on a fixed income and requires a number of medications to control her lupus and an associated heart condition. But when Dr. Andrew's book was brought to her church in West Valley, Utah, she saw a natural answer to some of the pharmaceuticals she hated taking. So she says she paid $200 toward his signature blood work, along with an extra $300 for a phone consultation.
After just 10 minutes on the phone, she says, Dr. Andrew prescribed $1,000 in supplements. Willard balked — not only at the price, but at the supplements themselves and the interactions they might have had with her prescription drugs. She says he dismissed her concerns about the ways her various medications (for conditions ranging from fibromyalgia to atrial fibrillation) might interact, saying "the blood work tells all."
"He prescribed me a thyroid medication," Willard says. "My doctor doesn't dare prescribe me thyroid medication because it sets off my heart." She claims he never would tell her what was in the homeopathic remedies he expected her to take.
"All I wanted to do was to get off my medications, all these expensive medications I'm paying for," Willard says. "And he was peddling some snake oil I'd never heard of before — these combination packs. When I ask what's in these combination packs, he'd say it's proprietary."
In his statement, Dr. Andrew reiterated the purity of his motives and mission.
"My entire career has been dedicated to providing hope and the utmost care to individuals — including those with no access to health care — with the mission of vastly improving their health and making a marked difference in their lives," Dr. Andrew wrote.
"The list of people who have had their lives enhanced by my life's passion and work is overwhelming and a true testament to the quality of care I strive to give of myself to others each day.
"I refuse to let the comments of a few dissuade me from my life's mission which is to teach, empower, and help others achieve the life they desire."
Raven Willard doesn't seem convinced.
"He's not a healer," she says, "he's a greedy stinker."
Dr. Asa Andrew's Statement"I am deeply troubled by the hurtful, false and misleading allegations that have been presented to me.
In my opinion, they are the work of a few disgruntled former employees with ulterior motives.
My entire career has been dedicated to providing hope and the utmost care to individuals — including those with no access to health care — with the mission of vastly improving their health and making a marked difference in their lives. My credentials are as follows: I have a doctorate and am currently licensed in Tennessee as a chiropractic physician. I also hold a Diplomate in Nutrition and am currently in the final stages of completing my clinical rotations for my medical degree (MD).
The list of people who have had their lives enhanced by my life’s passion and work is overwhelming and a true testament to the quality of care I strive to give of myself to others each day.
I refuse to let the comments of a few dissuade me from my life’s mission which is to teach, empower, and help others achieve the life they desire."