Doctor linked to drug deaths allowed to practice on probation

An Orange County doctor accused of gross negligence in the care of two patients who fatally overdosed on drugs he prescribed has been placed on probation by the Medical Board of California.

Van H. Vu, who owns a busy pain clinic in Huntington Beach, agreed not to contest the board's accusation, to take classes in prescribing and record keeping and to submit to an outside practice monitor for five years. In exchange, the board allowed Vu to keep his license and continue prescribing potent painkillers.

A 2012 Times investigation revealed 16 patients' overdose deaths associated with Vu's practice and raised questions about the medical board's oversight of doctors who prescribe dangerous narcotics. The Times found that even when the board sanctioned doctors for problem prescribing, in most cases it allowed them to continue practicing and prescribing with few or no restrictions. Eight doctors disciplined for excessive prescribing later had patients die of overdoses or related causes. Prescriptions those doctors wrote caused or contributed to 19 deaths, The Times found.

A board spokeswoman said the agreement with Vu, which took effect Friday, served the public interest by avoiding the expense and uncertainty of a trial.

“It makes the resolution faster,” spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson said. “We still have the upper hand. He will be watched very, very closely.... If he deviates one iota from these probationary requirements, revocation is back on the table.”

Lawyers for Vu did not return calls.

Sally Finnila-Sloane, whose brother died after getting a prescription from Vu, said she was disappointed with the board's decision.

“He had his hand slapped, and my brother's dead,” she said.

The Times revealed that Karl Finnila, 43, died on a sidewalk hours after getting a prescription from Vu. The medical board faulted Vu for prescribing to him even after learning he was suicidal and seeking drugs. The coroner left half a dozen messages for Vu asking for information about Finnila, but the calls went unreturned, records showed.

“How is that right? How is that fair? Where's justice?” his sister asked. “The worst thing that's happened is the guy had his name published in the newspaper.”

A criminal investigation opened in the wake of the Times report is ongoing, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the inquiry.

In interviews in 2012, Vu described himself as a conscientious, caring physician. He declined to comment on individual cases, citing confidentiality laws, but he said he treats many “very, very difficult patients” whose chronic pain is sometimes complicated by substance abuse and depression, anxiety or other mental illness.

“Every single day, I try to do the best I can for every single patient,” he said. “I can't control what they do once they leave my office.”

The second case in the board accusation involved a patient The Times identified as Jennifer Thurber. The 22-year-old died two days after receiving a prescription for the painkiller methadone from Vu's office. Though she also had been prescribed drugs from other doctors, the board said Vu's multiple acts of gross negligence “caused the patient's death.”

The board said Vu's escalation in the dosage of Thurber's methadone “departed from the standard of care.” The pills prescribed “over a two-day period alone could represent the cause of death,” the complaint
said.

Charles Thurber, an Orange County sheriff's deputy, said he disagreed with the medical board's decision.

“My daughter wanted to be a nurse,” he said. “And if it wasn't for the toxic prescription she got, she'd be helping others like she wanted to.... He took that from her.”

 

Twitter: @lisagirion

lisa.girion@latimes.com

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