Doctor’s office raided in probe of illegal prescriptions
Authorities on Wednesday raided the office of a Rowland Heights doctor suspected of improperly prescribing narcotics to patients. Her practice has been linked to at least eight overdose and suicide deaths in recent years.
As they continue to investigate, officials suspended Dr. Lisa Tseng’s license to prescribe controlled substances, calling her “an imminent danger to public health and safety.” An affidavit supporting the search of her office specifies two overdose deaths that federal authorities tied to her office. Autopsy reports reviewed by The Times and interviews indicate Tseng was a prescribing physician in six other cases.
In one of the two cases cited in the affidavit, a young man overdosed after Tseng prescribed him drugs; in the other, a 20-year-old overdosed after taking drugs given to him by a dealer who allegedly got them from Tseng, according to the affidavit sworn by DEA Special Agent Robert J. Harkins and filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
In an interview late Wednesday, Tseng denied wrongdoing and said the responsibility for overdoses lies with the patients, themselves, and their families. “I really believe I did nothing wrong,” she said. “I was really strict with my patients, and I followed the guidelines. If my patient decides to take a month’s supply in a day, then there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Tseng, 40, a general osteopath whose full name is Hsiu-Ying Lisa Tseng, was not charged with any crime and retained her license to practice medicine. But the search warrant affidavit made it clear that she is under investigation for allegedly prescribing oxycodone and other powerful narcotics without properly assessing her patients’ needs or apparent addictions. She has been under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration since 2007, according to the affidavit.
The raid on her office is part of a continuing effort by authorities to pursue physicians in the Los Angeles area who allegedly prescribe legal drugs in illegal ways. Last month, a San Fernando doctor was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for illegally prescribing painkillers and other drugs to addicts who feigned medical problems. Overprescribing oxycodone and other potent drugs is fueling a thriving black market and has helped make the misuse of prescription medications second only to marijuana as a drug problem among teenagers, authorities say.
More than a dozen agents with the DEA and the California Medical Board searched Tseng’s Advance Care Medical Center, located on the second floor of a mini-mall next to a popular dim sum restaurant and above a beauty supply store. They spent the better part of the day collecting patients’ files and searching the office’s computers to expand their understanding of how Tseng practiced.
According to the affidavit, Tseng rebuffed some requests by undercover agents for certain drugs. She refused one request made by an agent pretending to be a patient who asked for oxycodone for bad menstrual cramps and told another agent posing as a drug-seeker that she “does not want a patient that takes painkillers for fun or to get high.”
At the same time, the affidavit details a number of questionable practices by Tseng. It cites a medical expert who reviewed Tseng’s prescribing habits for authorities and concluded that it is “inconceivable that the pattern of prescriptions that he reviewed comes solely from the legitimate practice of medicine.”
The expert, Dr. James L. Gagne, added that he was “ ‘almost certain’ that in most of the cases that he reviewed, Tseng is prescribing drugs to addicts or drug dealers without a legitimate medical purpose,” according to the affidavit, which added that Gagne had said he would have to review Tseng’s patients’ charts to know for sure.
A parent cited in the affidavit said her drug-addicted son was one of Tseng’s patients and described the office near the Pomona Freeway as “a revolving door,” catering mainly to young men. Patients would spend a few minutes inside before meeting in the parking lot and comparing which drugs each had been prescribed, the parent said.
Another woman, according to the affidavit, confronted Tseng about prescribing oxycodone to her daughter, who had begun the particularly dangerous practice of crushing the pills and injecting them intravenously for a more intense high. Tseng refused to discuss the woman’s concerns, citing patients’ confidentiality. And, she said, she would continue prescribing to the daughter unless the patient personally informed her that she was an addict.
Patients paid $55 to $75 in cash for an office visit with Tseng, according to the affidavit. Interviews with patients and their families indicate that she had developed a reputation among addicts in some suburban communities as a doctor who was easy with the prescription pad. One former patient cooperating with authorities suggested that pharmacists were reluctant to fill Tseng’s prescriptions, saying he had been rebuffed by about 20 pharmacies before finally finding a couple that would fill them.
The investigation of Tseng began when pharmacies and police in Murrieta told the DEA that the doctor had been “providing an unusually large number” of prescriptions for oxycodone and other drugs to people who had no apparent need, according to the affidavit.
A review of a state prescription database revealed that Tseng had prescribed drugs to many of the same patients as another doctor who had been previously indicted for violating federal drug laws, according to the affidavit. It also showed that, over a three-year period ending in February of this year, Tseng wrote more than 27,000 prescriptions for controlled substances — an average of 25 per day.
Of the two cases cited in the affidavit, one involved a young man identified by the initials J.D.C. who was found dead in his bedroom on June 2 by authorities in Orange County. On his nightstand were several prescription bottles, including containers of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, and hydrocodone, a powerful pain reliever often sold under the brand name Vicodin.
The hydrocodone was prescribed by Tseng five days earlier, according to the affidavit. Tseng prescribed 100 tablets; two were left in the bottle. Investigators found seven more empty medication vials in the man’s closet, all prescribed by Tseng. His death was ruled an accident due to the combined effects of hydrocodone and other drugs.
Two months earlier, police in Irvine responded to the scene of an overdose. Two young men who were there when police arrived were arrested on drug-related charges. One, a suspected drug dealer, told police the 20-year-old dead man had just taken oxycodone. The other suspect said he had taken Xanax, as well. Inside a black backpack belonging to the suspected drug dealer, police found several syringes and six pill bottles, including oxycodone and Xanax prescribed by Tseng, the affidavit says. An autopsy report concludes that the man had died of the combined effects of several prescription drugs, including Xanax.