A Rowland Heights doctor accused of recklessly prescribing narcotic painkillers and other addictive drugs has been charged with murder in connection with three fatal overdoses, a rare attempt to hold a physician criminally liable for patients’ deaths.
Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng, 42, was arrested Thursday and led handcuffed from her office in a strip mall off the 60 Freeway where authorities say patients — many of them men in their 20s — once came to get prescriptions for drugs as potent as heroin.
The charges Thursday represent a bold move sure to spur debate in the medical and legal communities and come as public health and law enforcement authorities are grappling with rising prescription drug deaths.
“Prescription drug overdose deaths have reached epidemic proportions,” Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a prepared statement issued shortly after Tseng’s arrest. “Enough is enough. Doctors are not above the law.”
As she was escorted from her second-floor clinic by sheriff’s deputies and state medical board investigators, Tseng stared at the ground and shook her head when asked by a reporter for comment.
In an interview with The Times in 2010, Tseng acknowledged that she had been confronted about her prescribing habits by her patients’ loved ones, but insisted she had done nothing wrong. “They call me all sorts of names — drug doctor, drug-dealing doctor…. I tell parents a lot of times it’s their problem,” she said.
Tseng is being held on $3-million bail and is expected to be arraigned Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
A 2010 Times investigation linked Tseng’s prescriptions to the overdose deaths of at least eight young men, including the three named in the district attorney’s complaint: Joey Rovero, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon, Calif.; Vu Nguyen, 28, of Lake Forest; and Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert.
All three died in 2009 after traveling long distances to see Tseng, a general practitioner. Rovero, the ASU student, drove all the way from Tempe, Ariz., with friends to get his prescriptions.
His mother, April, who has been lobbying authorities to prosecute Tseng since shortly after her son’s death, said she was relieved to hear the doctor “is “finally being brought to justice.”
“This is a very emotional day for all of us who loved Joey, and I’m sure it will be for everyone else whose lives have been devastated by her actions,” Rovero said. “People count on their doctors to treat them professionally, and to save their lives, not take them.”
Tseng had been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration for years even as her patients continued to overdose, The Times reported. Federal prosecutors were considering charging her under a drug-dealing statute, but the case ultimately ended up in Cooley’s office.
In addition to the deaths, Tseng is charged with 20 counts of prescribing painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs to people who had no legitimate need for the medications. Several of the “patients” were authorities working under cover. The drugs she allegedly prescribed included oxycodone and alprazolam, are commonly abused and sold on the black market.
Thursday’s charges come one day after Tseng agreed to surrender her medical license to settle with regulators who accused her of gross negligence in her care of more than a dozen patients, including three who died. The board’s 118-page complaint alleged that she prescribed excessive amounts of drugs to patients without taking precautions, such as checking a state-run prescription database, that would have shown they were getting similar prescriptions from other doctors.
“I have said since the beginning she belongs in jail, and now there is a good chance she’s going to wind up there,” said Donald Krpan, executive director of the state’s osteopathic board.
Several physicians have been prosecuted in recent years for violating drug-dealing statutes by overprescribing narcotics to addicts. But it is highly unusual for doctors to be charged criminally in the deaths of patients.
Dr. Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of pop star Michael Jackson. Prosecutors alleged that Murray’s intravenous administration of the surgical anesthetic propofol to help Jackson sleep in his home was recklessly outside the bounds of accepted medical practice. Murray was sentenced in November to the maximum four years behind bars.
The prosecution of Murray is the exception, not the rule, said Bryan Liang, director of the Institute of Health Law Studies at the California Western School of Law.
“We don’t generally criminalize negative medical outcomes,” Liang said. “It is very rare for a physician to get hit with gross negligence to the point of criminality. That’s a very difficult standard.”
The DEA began investigating Tseng’s practice in 2007 and in August 2010 raided her office. Investigators seized computers and records, and the DEA suspended Tseng’s narcotics prescription writing privileges, calling her “an imminent danger to public health and safety.”
Tseng, in her interview with The Times, said she was strict with her patients and followed medical guidelines.
“I never intended to kill anybody,” she said.
Samantha Nguyen said she reported Tseng to the district attorney’s office in the wake of her brother’s death, three years ago Friday. Nguyen said she never heard back, so the charges came as a surprise.
She said the drugs Tseng prescribed made her brother, Vu, slur his speech at times and act so strangely that co-workers would call her. She said if it was that obvious to co-workers, Tseng should have known the drugs were causing him problems.
“I really do feel she was responsible,” Nguyen said. “She’s a doctor, and she took an oath to preserve life.”
The Times investigation also found that Tseng’s patients included at least three people who had been charged with dealing drugs and a fourth who was suspected by police of doing so. In interviews with The Times, two others admitted dealing drugs prescribed by Tseng, and family members of several dead patients said they suspected their loved ones sold some of their prescription pills to finance their habits.