Before she OD’d on prescription pills, she was a ghost.
In and out of hospitals on both coasts. Doctors treating the starlet (we’ll call her “Jane”) gave her pills under an average fake name. Jane hadn’t asked for the cover. It happened to be the standard treatment for A-listers. Came with the gown. It helped keep her checkups and treatments hush-hush.
“Back then the sole reason for using an alias was to protect [Jane’s] privacy, 100 percent,” said a close relation of the now-deceased Jane, who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.
“If you go to the doctor and some prescription is written in your name, nobody knows who you are,” the source said. “But if you’re a celebrity like [Jane] it’s possible anybody can sell the information and that is the case and it’s disturbing. It’s just the reality of where we are.”
Just last week, Cathriona White—the 29-year-old Irish-born makeup artist stunner, who had been Jim Carrey’s girlfriend (and also happened to be married)—was found dead inside her L.A. apartment on Monday of a suspected suicide.
By her bedside, TMZ reported, authorities found a toxic trio of meds prescribed to Carrey (or rather, to Carrey’s alias) by the same doctor.
The practice of doing stars a secret solid and making out their prescriptions to an alias is still standard among industry doctors and hospitals. But medical professionals, pharmaceutical officials and lawyers all told The Daily Beast that the fake-name routine may soon be on the outs.
The names and fatalities keep adding up: before Cathriona White there was Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson, Corey Haim, and Brittany Murphy. Dr. Drew Pinsky, acclaimed author and former host of MTV’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, has been battling this deadly phenomenon for years. “The combination of benzos and opiates are killing my patients,” he told The Daily Beast. “I rarely have a patient OD for cocaine. They die of pills.”
Underneath the push-and-twist caps are pills that the patients know too little about and too easily can misuse. “Some of my peers don’t understand the dangers of opiates in the hands of addicts,” Pinsky said.
Practitioners may think that aliases are well-intentioned and nobody wants their medical secrets outed to the world where celeb dirt is bought and sold on the gray marketplace. Yet it too often backfires.
And it can even obstruct the doctor’s duty to help the patient.
“As soon as you treat a patient as special that’s where the trouble starts and doctors lose track of their jobs,” Pinksy told The Daily Beast.
This has a name—VIP syndrome—and it means that the very people who are supposed to protect patients from harm can get blinded by the glitz. “They are supposed to use their judgment,” Pinsky said. “It’s their exquisite judgement that makes them doctors.”
Pinsky admitted that he himself got caught up in this for a short time, early on in his practice. “I did give them special grooming and special this and special that and it always ill-served the patient,” he said.
Doctors that don't keep their relationship confined to their practice and start taking part in patients’ social gatherings or galas, Pinsky said, “aren’t practicing medicine” and may even be “violating the boundaries” of their duties.
As for aliases, it’s a big no-no. “You can’t do that,” he said. “Forget the care of the patient, the ethics of putting somebody else’s name—that’s a mistake.”
Granting some cover may seem swell for a doctor hoping to appease their marquee patient but in the end the results can be cataclysmic. “The whole system falls apart when you do that,” Pinsky said. “The system needs to operate the way it needs to operate and using aliases messes with the system.”
The use of aliases may even be a form of fraud and thus illegal.
There was the psychiatrist who prescribed painkillers and antidepressants to Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, who died of an overdose in 2007. She was 39 years old. Khristine Eroshevich was found guilty for conspiring to overmedicate the woman. The prosecutor at the time claimed Eroshevich and Nicole’s other doctor, Sandeep Kapoor, were engaged in the “egregious overprescribing” of potent pills. That verdict was tossed out on appeal.
The practice of aliases itself runs smack against California’s Health and Safety Code, which states: “No person shall, in connection with the prescribing, furnishing, administering, or dispensing of a controlled substance, give a false name or false address.”
Among the many forms that prescription fraud can take federally, one of them is spelled out the Drug Enforcement Administration’s [DEA] website: “Patient appears presenting prescriptions written in the names of other people.”
That being the case, one source with the agency told The Daily Beast that while the law may be broken when a celeb is picking up their controlled substances from the drugstore under an assumed name, the agency has bigger fish to fry. “I can assure you that our diversion or tactical diversion squads are not looking at the person doing it for 30 pills a month, three times a year,” the source said. “The doctor writing questionable prescriptions 500 times, maybe.”
Meanwhile, keeping the identities of celebrities under wraps is critical for hospitals to fend off leaks and even lawsuits, said Mark Geragos, who has repped many Hollywood legends—chief among them the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, who died of a prescription pill overdose. “I’ve had many clients over the years tell me that prominent hospitals will do this,” he told The Daily Beast. “Doctors try to shield their patients so that nobody knows who it is.”
Shielding celebrity patients— like “Jane” when she was alive—has been standard operating procedure going back at least a decade. “It’s what every doctor from every hospital we went to [did] from New York City to L.A.—literally every doctor we went to,” Jane’s relative said, naming L.A.’s prestigious Cedars Sinai hospital as one example where aliases were allegedly a mainstay.
“Cedars Sinai used an alias for her even in prescription medication,” the source said. “And I don’t think she was by any means unique. [Jane] didn’t decide, ‘Hey, put me under a certain name.’ The doctors decided.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Cedars Sinai confirmed that their policy allows patients to check in under assumed names in “certain situations” when it comes to privacy and also when “patient safety” is at risk, such as victims of abuse.
“The use of an alias helps shield patients’ private and personal health information from public scrutiny, gossip and discrimination based on medical conditions,” the statement reads.
Breaches have been known to haunt hospitals, tracking back to 1980 when actor Steve McQueen tried to slip in and out of Cedars Sinai undetected before some worker there managed to squeal that he was cancer-stricken.
“There are a zillion examples of famous peoples’ charts being read and people who are talking that shouldn’t be talking,” said Baron Lerner, a doctor at New York University Langone Medical Center and author of the 2009 book, When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look At Medicine.
While the fear of leaks is less after the advent of electronic prescriptions and individual logins, it remains a “necessary evil.”
“From an ethics perspective it’s something we would like to avoid, and in the past we have begrudgingly done,” Lerner said. “The gold standard is that everything is on the up and up and that you ensure your staff doesn’t say anything and pseudonyms don’t have to be used.”
Lerner mentioned a time when he learned a big name was coming to his hospital. “Many years ago when I was at Columbia [Presbyterian Hospital], Bill Clinton was admitted and there was a memo that went around which said, ‘Don’t you dare go on the computer and check his medical records,’” he recalled.
To ditch the risk exposure, some celebs have taken to what’s been called “concierge medicine,” where doctors, for a handsome premium, will do house calls. “That’s how doctors get by it now,” Mark Geragos said.
Geragos also referred to the practice of “doctor shopping,” where celebs try to pursue practitioners who will cater to their whims and feed their addiction. “If you happen to be a celebrity you will go outside the normal delivery channels and insurance and now go to private doctors and private dispensaries.
“That’s rampant,” he said. “It’s pretty much how celebrities manage to fly below the radar.”
Indeed, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which is chartered on protecting the patient’s safety and privacy, is almost powerless when it comes to under-the-table doctoring. “A provider who is ‘cash only’ will not be covered by our rules because they don’t meet the statutory and regulatory definitions of a covered health care provider,” said a spokeswoman for HIPAA’s Office for Civil Rights.
And when it comes to prescriptions, HIPAA “doesn’t regulate” how the pills land in the hands of patients, said the spokeswoman. That falls on local agencies.
In California, for instance, the Board of Pharmacy keeps tabs on white coats who dispense the pills.
The issue of aliases being a kind of fringe benefit for VIPs is something that Virginia Herold, the board's executive director, is aware of but admits they aren’t “aggressively investigating.” They place the lion’s share of the onus on the prescriber.
“If the prescriber is writing the prescription in someone’s name other than the correct patient’s name, the pharmacy shouldn’t be changing the name when it gets there because there’s a prescription document in front of them,” she said.
Also, the patient doesn’t get a pass if they are duping their drugstore. “You have to assume at some point that the patient is complicit in this,” she said. “I will tell you that if you pass a prescription under a false name, one of the things that happens now is pharmacies will typically ask for a driver’s license when they are filling a controlled substance.”
Without that proof, everybody could be on the hook. “There’s an apparatus set up that if you start getting fake prescriptions and come in and get them filled and you don’t have the IDs to back them up, the prescriber will be in trouble and the pharmacy that dispensed it is in trouble,” Herold said.
Herold also mentioned the tragic cases—as with Jim Carrey’s girlfriend—where prescription pills can end up in the hands of people they weren’t ever intended for. “If you can influence people because you’re very influential yourself sometimes they can end up with drugs that they shouldn’t have,” she said.
Michael Jackson managed to get his drugs through a Las Vegas-based doctor named Conrad Murray and others in Los Angeles as well. Two months after Jackson’s overdose, DEA agents raided Beverly Hills-based pharmacy Mickey Fine Pharmacy & Grill to investigate allegations of improper dispensing of pain meds.
Longtime owner Jeff Gross told The Daily Beast that they were tabloid fodder after the raid. “The stuff that’s out there is out there,” he said. But all along Gross says the family-run eatery and medicine hub is a clean ship, and has been since being established in 1962. “We do everything that we can to do it by the book,” Gross said. “That’s why when all was said and done nothing happened to us.”
Inside the small shop where you can get your painkillers after chowing on greasy spoon offerings like matzo ball soup or BBQ ribs, the pharmacy serves a loyal clientele that Gross admits is often rich and famous.
But nobody kowtows to anybody at Mickey Fine, he said. “There are places that do it but we do not do it,” he said.
Still, even Gross can’t be sure that every name on the script is legit. “We use the patient’s name and if a doctor calls it in under a different name we don’t know if Dr. So-and-So sends in a prescription for XYZ—we’re not going to know who patient XYZ is.
“At the end of the day it’s the doctor who calls it in under a different alias—that’s on the doctor,” he said.
But the celeb patient, used to calling the shots, is often granted too much sway. “You make recommendations and they will tell you, ‘I’d rather see a nutritionist’ or ‘alternative medicine,’” Dr. Pinsky said.
Still, Hollywood doctors contacted for this story insisted they would never consider compromising their integrity for any A-List celebs or deep-pocketed tycoons.
Take Rich Hirschinger, a pain management doctor in L.A. who also keeps a thriving concierge service to some of his one-percent patients. Whatever the demand by whichever big name on his table, he’s adamant about keeping his Hippocratic Oath. “I will tell them I can write medicine for you and only for you,” he said. “ I don’t care who you are. I need to be able to sleep at night.”
He has been propositioned plenty, he said. “Some people have asked me to send a prescription in as the assistant instead of them,” he said. “They aren’t using their real name. But I tell them, ‘I’m not treating your assistant. I’m treating you.’”
Plastic surgeon and USC professor Sheila Nazarian isn’t willing to compromise no matter how flashy the patient.
Her Beverly Hills practice, which opened over two years ago, caters to some movers and shakers but she treats every patient like a celebrity. “I see eight people a day and I spend an hour with each of them no matter who you are,” she said.
Favoring “soccer moms” over “celebs” anyday, Dr. Nazarian has avoided A-list pitfalls. While other surgeons trumpet separate VIP entrances for patients, Nazarian created a populist waiting room for everybody to get to and fro.
Writing prescriptions is no small matter for her. “When patients come here I don’t write their prescription to someone else’s name,” she said, noting that the stakes are just too high to be loose with the law. “That is jeopardizing my license,” she said. “I literally worked too hard to get anywhere close to that gray line.”
And to those starstruck docs, Nazarian considers them lost causes. “It’s not worth any amount of money because this person is narcissistic or beyond,” she said.