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Murder charges against doctor in drug cases seen as rare

March 1, 2012 |  5:55 pm

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 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,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a 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,” she 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. 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, which 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 the 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.

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-- Scott Glover, Lisa Girion and Hailey Branson-Potts

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