The Medical Board of California has accused three Los Angeles doctors of over-prescribing narcotics and other addictive drugs to actress Elizabeth Taylor, the attorney general’s office said Friday.
The doctors named in the board’s recent complaint are Michael S. Gottlieb, an immunologist who is credited with diagnosing the nation’s first AIDS cases, Michael J. Roth and William F. Skinner. All are on staff at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Earl Plowman, whose office is prosecuting the case.
The physicians are accused of violating narcotics laws, falsifying medical records and prescribing addictive drugs without medical justification. The complaint was filed Aug. 28. If the charges are substantiated, the doctors’ licenses may be suspended or revoked by the state medical board, Plowman said.
During a five-year period in the mid-1980s, Plowman said, Taylor’s doctors ordered for her more than 1,000 prescriptions for 28 controlled substances, including sleeping pills, painkillers and tranquilizers.
Skinner is the medical director of the chemical dependency center at St. John’s. Roth, a longtime friend of Taylor and a former partner of Gottlieb, is the actress’s current physician. Gottlieb’s primary affiliation is with Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.
In detailing the alleged abuses of medical privilege, the 80-page complaint paints a picture of a consuming drug addiction. The complaint alleges that in 1988 Gottlieb “wrote prescriptions for controlled substances knowing other physicians, particularly Dr. Roth, were writing prescriptions, usually for the same drugs at the same time and usually on the same day.”
It also charges that Skinner “repeatedly issued multiple prescriptions for injectable Demerol on the same day, often having them filled at multiple pharmacies, and often issued prescriptions for other controlled substances, having them filled at multiple pharmacies.”
Robert Fredricks, senior vice president of medical affairs at St. John’s, acknowledged that the three doctors are under investigation, but defended their conduct and the hospital’s medical standards.
“They all have very good reputations at the hospital and among their colleagues in the area,” he said. “Through our hospital’s own medical quality assurance procedures, we haven’t found any problems with these three physicians.”
The complaint also alleged that Skinner and Gottlieb, when filling out hospital requisitions, intentionally omitted references to drugs they gave to Taylor.
But Fredericks said, “Every drug given to a patient is recorded three different times, by doctors who order the medicine, by the pharmacy which dispenses it and by nurses who administer it. To say that it was not recorded is mind-boggling.”
An attorney for Gottlieb said the investigation into the alleged improprieties had less to do with the accused doctors than with the internationally celebrated Taylor.
“Of all the people under the supervision of these three doctors, Elizabeth Taylor is the only patient who has been allegedly mistreated,” said Harland Braun, Gottlieb’s lawyer. “Think about this in terms of a celebrity issue. Every little deputy (attorney general) and medical board official sees this as a shot at 15 minutes of fame. They are using Elizabeth Taylor’s notoriety to bring attention to the notion that they are doing a good job, which they aren’t.”
Consumer interest groups and state legislators have sharply criticized the medical board for not taking swift and effective action on numerous recent complaints of negligent medical practice.
Gottlieb’s lawyer said the charge of falsifying medical records arose from comments made by the doctors in a deposition during the investigation.
“The doctors are very careful about what they put in those medical charts,” he said. “Again, when you are dealing with a celebrity, special considerations have to be taken. The tabloids were paying orderlies at the hospital for information about Ms. Taylor. Anything that went on her charts virtually became public record.”
In the past, Taylor has talked openly of her 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers, and she has been treated repeatedly for alcohol and drug abuse. A publicist representing Taylor said Thursday that the 58-year-old actress wanted to distance herself from the complaint and emphasized that the charges were an undertaking of the state medical board and not Taylor.
Taylor was treated for viral pneumonia at St. John’s for three months this spring. Roth and other doctors not charged by the state attended to Taylor, and since her release in June, the Academy Award-winning actress has “continued to check in with Dr. Roth on a regular basis,” said Lisa Del Favero, a New York City publicist. Del Favero said she did not know if Taylor is currently being prescribed medication.
Taylor, who is still recovering, has been advised by Roth “not to make any travel plans or partake in rigorous activity,” Del Favero said. “She has also been told not to make any public appearances until the fall of this year, at the earliest.”
Regina Birdsell, press secretary for the the attorney general’s office, said that the doctors “will continue to practice” while the board considers the charges.
Lee reported from Los Angeles and Ellis from Sacramento