Hsiu Ying “Lisa” Tseng, DO, made dubious medical history in October 2015 when she became the first US physician to be convicted of murder for overprescribing drugs that resulted in the overdose death of a patient.
Last week, the 46-year-old Dr Tseng was sentenced to from 30 years to life in prison by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli in a case that began with a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation in 2008.
A jury had found her guilty of three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of three young California men: Vu Nguyen, 28; Steven Ogle, 24; and Joseph “Joey” Rovero III, 21.
Those convictions were the first of their kind, according to the DEA. However, it is not as if prosecutors have not filed similar charges elsewhere in their crackdown on pill mills that have made getting opioid pain medications as easy as buying fast food. In 2011, Gerald Klein, MD, was charged in a Florida state court with first-degree murder in the death of 24-year-old patient Joseph Bartolucci, who overdosed on hydromorphone and alprazolam. The 81-year-old Dr Klein belonged to a cadre of physicians who churned out prescriptions in South Florida pill mills run by twin brothers Jeffrey and Christopher George, who received lengthy prison sentences in federal court. In September 2015, a state court jury acquitted Dr Klein on the first-degree murder charge, but found him guilty of illegally selling alprazolam to a patient, which is a third-degree felony.
The First and Last Visit of Joey Rovero
With Dr Tseng, the convictions piled up. In addition to the three counts of second-degree murder, she was also found guilty of 19 counts of illegally prescribing a controlled substance and one count of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud.
Dr Tseng’s attorneys contended during the trial that her patients bore responsibility for their overdoses by taking more of the drugs than she prescribed. At her sentencing last week, however, she expressed remorse for her patients’ deaths, according to Reuters. “I know I cannot turn back the clock,” she was quoted as saying.
Nine of Dr Tseng’s patients died within a 3-year period, during which her slovenly storefront practice in Rowland Heights, California, took in more than $5 million, according to state prosecutors. For many patients, there were no records of office visits — which were said to be brief and cursory — or prescriptions, although Dr Tseng began fabricating records once authorities began looking into her medical practice.
The three patients Dr Tseng was convicted of murdering all died in 2009. They were representative of the young adult males who constituted an outsized proportion of her clientele, according to the DEA. Although some patients abused the drugs, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone/acetaminophen, and alprazolam, others sold them on the street.
The youngest of the three victims, Joseph Rovero III, was a student at Arizona State University in Tempe, who visited Dr Tseng for his first and only time on December 9, 2009, during a road trip with several buddies, according to news accounts. Records of the Osteopathic Medical Board of California state that Rovero, whose home was 380 miles away in San Ramon, complained of pain in his lower back, hand, and wrist, as well as anxiety. Dr Tseng prescribed him alprazolam, oxycodone, and carisoprodol, a muscle relaxant.
The osteopathic board faulted Dr Tseng with failing to conduct a proper physician examination and history and failing to check with the state’s prescription drug monitoring program to see whether Rovero was a drug-abusing “doctor shopper.”
“It is unusual for a man his age to be using high-dose opioid analgesic therapy for a chronic pain condition in the absence of extenuating circumstances, such as addiction,” the board said.
Rovero died 9 days after visiting Dr Tseng. The autopsy put the cause of death as acute intoxication of oxycodone and alprazolam. Alcohol also was found in his body.
He was 5 months away from college graduation.