O.C. pain doctor caused deaths of three patients, authorities allege

O.C. pain doctor caused deaths of three patients, authorities allege
A 2012 Times investigation revealed 16 patients' overdose deaths associated with Van H. Vu's practice and raised questions about the medical board's oversight of doctors who prescribe dangerous narcotics. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

An Orange County pain doctor caused the deaths of three patients by negligently prescribing them powerful narcotics, state medical authorities said in a complaint made public Friday.

The Medical Board of California is seeking to suspend or revoke the license of Dr. Van H. Vu, who was linked to more than a dozen patient overdose deaths by a Times investigation in 2012.


The medical board alleged Vu was grossly negligent in the deaths of a 22-year-old woman who had been planning her wedding, a 43-year-old mentally ill man who was prescribed drugs by Vu the day he was released from a hospital after an earlier overdose, and a 51-year-old single father who became addicted to pain drugs after a car accident. Each death had been detailed in The Times' investigation.

"I want this man to be stopped," said Sally Finnila-Sloan, whose brother Karl Finnila was one of the patients referred to in the medical board's 15-page complaint. "I don't want him to hurt anyone else."

In addition to the medical board action, Orange County prosecutors are considering potential criminal charges against Vu, said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. She declined to provide details of the matter other than to say the review was "ongoing."

Vu, 50, could not be reached for comment. Messages left at his office and with one of his attorneys were not returned.

In earlier interviews with The Times, Vu portrayed himself a conscientious and caring physician who treated "very, very difficult patients" with chronic pain 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," Vu said in 2012. "I can't control what they do once they leave my office."

The medical board said Vu failed to address signs of trouble in all three cases cited in its complaint. He continued prescribing addictive pain drugs — sometimes in escalating doses and dangerous combinations, the board said. The actions, the board alleged, represented "extreme" departures from good medicine.

The deaths occurred amid a decade-long surge in addiction and overdoses involving prescription pain relievers. Such drugs — OxyContin, Vicodin and other narcotic painkillers — contribute to more than 16,000 fatal overdoses annually and are the main reason drugs have surpassed traffic accidents as a cause of death in the U.S.

The Times' investigation showed drugs prescribed by doctors caused or contributed to nearly half of the prescription overdose deaths in Southern California in recent years. Vu led a list of 71 physicians who had prescribed drugs to three or more patients who died of overdoses or related causes.

The Times linked Vu to 17 patient deaths. He prescribed drugs to six people who died over the span of 18 months, including Finnila, coroner's records show. After Finnila's death, a coroner's investigator left a half dozen messages with the doctor seeking to learn more, but Vu never called back, according to the records. Over the next four years, 11 more of his patients died of overdoses, records show.

Kimberly Kirchmeyer, the executive director of the medical board, said she was prohibited by policy from saying whether additional patient deaths remained under investigation.

Jennifer Thurber, another patient referred to in the board's complaint, struggled for many years with pain, stemming from a surgery as a child and a car accident years later. She eventually began abusing the pain medications, said her father Charles, an Orange County sheriff's deputy.

Thurber's fiance told the medical board that, a few days before she died, she seemed "lethargic and not very coherent." Yet the next day, she received a prescription for the painkiller methadone, from Vu, according to the accusation.

Thurber died two days later from an overdose of several medications. Methadone was found in her blood, the board noted.


The accusation comes nearly seven years after her father found her body, pale and motionless, in her bed.

"It's been a long time coming," Charles Thurber said.