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Doctor gets 30 years to life for murders in L.A. case tied to patients’ overdoses

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / MARCH 16, 2012

    In this file photo Dr. Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng sits in a Los Angeles courtroom during her arraignment. Tseng is convicted of murder for prescribing “crazy, outrageous amounts” of painkillers that killed three patients.

LOS ANGELES » A judge today sentenced a Rowland Heights doctor to 30 years to life in prison for the murders of three of her patients who fatally overdosed, ending a landmark case that some medical experts say could reshape how doctors nationwide handle prescriptions.

The sentence came after a Los Angeles jury last year found Dr. Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng guilty of second-degree murder, the first time a doctor had been convicted of murder in the U.S. for overprescribing drugs, the district attorney’s office said.

Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli said before sentencing Tseng that she had attempted to blame patients, pharmacists and other doctors rather than take responsibility for her own actions.

“It seems to be an attempt to put the blame on someone else,” he said. “Very irresponsible.”

Tseng, wearing blue jail scrubs, apologized to the victims’ families, her family and “medical society.”

“I’m really terribly sorry,” she said, before addressing the courtroom audience, which was crowded with victims’ relatives. “I have been and forever will be praying for you. May God bless all of you and grant comfort to all who have been affected by my actions.”

April Rovero, whose son, Joey, died after mixing alcohol with Xanax and oxycodone he had obtained from Tseng, sat expressionless, listening to Tseng’s first public show of remorse.

“It feels too late,” Rovero said outside the courtroom. “But it was better to hear something than nothing.”

Rovero, who founded the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse after her son’s death, praised the judge’s decision.

“Justice has been served,” she said.

The 46-year-old former general practitioner is among a small but growing number of doctors charged with murder for prescribing painkillers that killed patients. A Florida doctor was acquitted of first-degree murder in September.

Some experts fear Tseng’s conviction will usher in a precarious new reality — a scenario in which doctors fearful of prosecution are hesitant to prescribe potent painkillers to patients who need them.

Attorney Peter Osinoff, who represented Tseng before the state medical board, told the judge during Friday’s hearing that the doctor no longer represents a danger to society since she surrendered her medical license in 2012.

The trial had already had a “deterrent effect” on other doctors and has captured the medical community’s attention.

“More primary care physicians no longer accept or treat chronic pain patients in their practice,” he told the judge.

Outside the courtroom, Osinoff said Tseng’s prosecution has had a negative impact on physicians and patients.

“The doctors are scared out of their minds,” he said. “The pendulum has swung so far. The people who need (pain medication) can’t get it now.”

Other medical experts have echoed his concerns since Tseng was charged in 2012.

“When you use the word ‘murder,’” said Dr. Peter Staats, president of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, “of course it’s going to have a chilling effect.”

Staats said he believes an aggressive medical board — not prosecutors — should go after reckless doctors. But, he added, any doctor who is prescribing pills knowing that they are being abused or diverted shouldn’t be called a doctor.

“That’s not the practice of medicine,” Staats said.

Dr. Francis Riegler, a pain specialist who works in Palmdale, Calif., said he has followed Tseng’s case and talked about the prosecution with fellow doctors across the country.

“We agree,” he said, “that if you’re doing the right thing — if you’re one of the good guys, if you will — you don’t need to worry about being prosecuted for murder.”

During Tseng’s trial, Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann told jurors that there were “red flags” in her prescribing habits.

More than a dozen times, the prosecutor said, a coroner’s or law enforcement official called with the same stark message: “Your patient has died.”

Her prescribing habits, Niedermann said, remained unchanged.

The prosecutor told jurors that Tseng wrote a man’s name on prescriptions so his wife could get twice as many pills, openly referred to her patients as “druggies” and sometimes made up medical records.

Her motivation, Niedermann said, was financial.

Between 2007, when Tseng joined the Rowland Heights clinic where her husband worked, and 2010, tax returns show that their office made $5 million, he said.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said the conviction sent an unflinching message to medical professionals.

“In this case,” Lacey said, “the doctor stole the lives of three young people in her misguided effort to get rich quick.”

Tseng was convicted of murder for the deaths of Vu Nguyen, 28, of Lake Forest; Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert; and Joey Rovero, 21, an Arizona State University student who prosecutors say traveled more than 300 miles with friends from Tempe, Ariz., to obtain prescriptions from Tseng at her Rowland Heights clinic.

The jury also found Tseng guilty on more than a dozen illegal-prescribing counts.

——

©2016 Los Angeles Times

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  • These people were drug addicts that would have got their drugs from a street dealer if necessary. I think calling it murder is excessive, each one of these people made the choice to take the drugs and caused their own deaths. I’ve never seen a street dealer get prosecuted for murder when someone overdoses on their drugs. They get prosecuted for distribution, the same should be true for the doctor. What she did was no different than what a street dealer does, both do it for the profit.

      • The problem is that drug dealers are rarely even prosecuted at all. Singapore has no drug problem. Anyone caught with more than two ounces of cocaine or heroin is subject to the death sentence. A kilogram of good old MJ gets you whack as well. Swift executions are the norm and the appeal process is very short. Take a clue America, drug dealers are just business men. A death sentence is a very big deterrence to making a profit.

      • This may be an extreme case, and the doctor deserves severe punishment. At the same time, millions of patients are manipulating the system to get drugs, including addictive drugs like adderall and benzos. It’s a tough decision for a doctor to tell a patient, “You’re not in pain, you can focus,” even when they know full well what’s going on. If a patient is lying and can’t say no to the craving, it would be great if the doctor could say no for them. Just isn’t real world much of the time.

  • Do you know of a local veterinarian who lost his license because he was buying Fentanyl lollipops. Pets don’t lick lollipops, right? It is usually injected intravenously for short procedures where barbiturates are not preferred. Not really used for pain killing in animals.

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