Doctors Behaving Badly: Body count tripped up prolific prescriber of painkillers

Published on
September 16, 2009

The medical examiner called Dr. Bernard N. Bass with some bad news: one of his
patients had been found dead. Bass refused to sign the death certificate.

This was a strange response, given that Bass had signed his name over and over in the
previous two years, every time Ryan Mazzola came into Bass' North Hollywood office asking for pain medication. Less of a surprise was the autopsy report: the patient died from a lethal mix of alcohol and hydrocodone.

Mazzola was 21 when he started going to Bass for pain medicine. He died in August 2005.

He was typical of Bass' clientele. According to Medical Board of California records, Bass saw a lot of twenty-somethings who had managed, in their short lives, to develop chronic back conditions that required massive doses of addictive painkillers. One patient was taking nine 10 mg tablets of Hydrocodone per day, 50% more than the recommended maximum daily dose.

These patients weren't satisfied with getting all their drugs from Bass, either. They went to other doctors who wrote them similar prescriptions. And when they ran out of drugs, they came back to Bass and said, among other things, that their girlfriend had flushed the drugs down the toilet, so they needed more. One of the patients, according to medical board records, "received 1,515 tablets of Lorcet 10/500 or Lortab 10/650 from three different providers," including Bass.

Now, how is a well-meaning doctor supposed to know that patients are doctor shopping? This has come up recently in the death of Michael Jackson, who had been trying to persuade several doctors to give him an anesthetic to help him sleep. How does one doctor know what another doctor is doing?

Over the course of two years, Bass was notified multiple times by the California Department of Justice's CURES program, which tracks prescriptions of controlled narcotics, that his patients were getting large amounts of drugs from him and large amounts of drugs from other doctors, too. In some cases, the state notified him three times that these patients were doctor shopping. Perhaps Bass saw this as competition. The medical board writes:

Respondent's notes indicate that he informed the patient about receiving the CURES reports showing treatment from two separate physicians for pain management. A note indicates that the patient agreed to have Respondent be his sole physician for pain management and Respondent provided prescription refills of Norco, Xanax and Soma.

More patients overdosed. A total of seven.

In May, Ventura County Sheriff's deputies raided Bass' Burbank home and his clinic. The Ventura County Attorney considered filing murder charges in connection with six patient deaths. The attorney ended up filing drug-distribution conspiracy charges. That alone was enough to stop Bass from practicing. He pleaded guilty and was facing a two-year prison sentence when, in June, Bass was found dead at his home.

John Kades, a Los Angeles County coroner's investigator told the Burbank Leader, "There were indications of a history of drug abuse and possible suicide."