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3 Doctors Cited in Taylor Drug Case : Medicine: The physicians receive reprimands for prescribing excessive medication to treat the actress's pain. Their attorneys say the decision is an exoneration.

August 11, 1994|CLAIRE SPIEGEL and VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Three prominent Los Angeles physicians have been reprimanded by the Medical Board of California for falsifying patient records to cover up the massive amounts of addictive drugs they prescribed to actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The actions, yet to be publicly released, bring to a close the accusations filed against the doctors in 1990 by the attorney general's office, alleging that the physicians prescribed excessive doses of painkillers to Taylor during the 1980s.

But even as the matter was brought to a close by the medical board, the settlement reignited a long-simmering controversy over the state's disciplinary system for doctors.

Attorneys for the doctors said the reprimand amounted to an exoneration of three dedicated physicians who were trying to control Taylor's pain and kept inaccurate medical records only to protect the actress from the prying eyes of reporters for tabloids such as the National Enquirer.

Harland Braun, attorney for Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb, said: "This letter (of reprimand) says nothing. It's an administrative fig leaf covering the board's private parts. . . . It ought to be labeled a letter of apology."

A public interest watchdog group in San Diego questioned whether the reprimand, which is intended for minor infractions, was an appropriate sanction.

Medical board officials said the action was appropriate and avoided the "circus" atmosphere of formal proceedings.

Initially, medical board officials had pressed to suspend or revoke the doctors' licenses. They had rejected as too lenient an offer by the doctors to go on probation and perform community service. Then, executive director Dixon Arnett decided last month to mete out the mildest punishment possible.

The decision comes as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has initiated legal action to determine whether to revoke the authority of two of the doctors to handle controlled substances. The DEA action against Gottlieb has been dropped.

Gottlieb, of Sherman Oaks, is the immunologist who reported the first AIDS case in the United States. The case also involves his former partner, Dr. Michael J. Roth, and Dr. William F. Skinner, who served until recently as the director of the chemical dependency unit at St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica.

"These are three doctors that have a tremendous reputation in the community and a great background," said Donald Goldman, Skinner's attorney.

In addition to her doctor-patient relationship, Taylor shared with Roth and Gottlieb a dedication to the AIDS movement. The actress was not identified in the reprimand or the accusation, but her name was revealed during legal discovery.

Her case was brought to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office in the late 1980s by officials of a detoxification center where she sought treatment. After an 18-month inquiry, the district attorney declined to press criminal charges but issued a report in April, 1990, stating that "the prescribing practices of these physicians fell below the accepted standard of medical practice."

Several months later, the attorney general's office filed a formal accusation charging that the doctors had written Taylor more than 1,000 prescriptions during a five-year period dating back to 1983 for 28 controlled substances, including sleeping pills, painkillers and tranquilizers.

The charges, totaling about 80 pages, include an exhaustive list of drugs prescribed in various combinations, both by tablet and by self-injection. Deputy Atty. Gen. Earl Plowman, who supervised the drafting of the complaint, recalled that when a medical expert first looked at the case, he assumed that the patient must be dead because "the dosages were incompatible with life."

Plowman recalled: "This was a rather systematic effort by the doctors to keep a patient supplied with drugs. . . . It was a classic case of abuse involving multiple prescriptions, multiple controlled substances at different pharmacies at the same time."

Taylor, who has undergone several spinal surgeries, has a history of back, neck and leg pain. Her publicist in New York said she was unavailable for comment.

Attorneys said drug dosages that would be excessive for most people were appropriate to combat Taylor's discomfort and allow her to function.

"Liz Taylor is a different patient, with intractable, long-term, untreatable pain," Braun said. "She has no life without painkillers." He added that the doctors did not accurately record the drugs she was given "to protect her from ending up in the National Enquirer."

Goldman concurred: "You see what comes out in the tabloid press these days and you can see very clearly why they (the doctors) did it."

By all accounts, this case has taken an inordinately long time to resolve.

The conclusion comes as the board, long criticized for slow and lenient discipline of doctors, is struggling to recover from a 1993 scandal that erupted after disclosures that officials had closed, and shredded, complaints without proper investigation.

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