A California doctor dubbed “Dr. Feelgood” by a prosecutor for allegedly doling out tens of thousands of prescriptions to patients who didn’t need them was charged with murder Thursday in the overdose deaths of three otherwise healthy young men.
Dr. Hsui-Ying “Lisa” Tseng was arrested after a lengthy probe that involved undercover work by drug enforcement agents who posed as patients to obtain prescriptions. She’s charged with overprescribing methadone, Xanax, oxycodone and other drugs.
Affidavits on file with the Osteopathic Medical Board of California showed that young men typically came to Tseng’s storefront office reporting they had neck, back or wrist pain. They said they had been to other doctors who gave them other opiates that weren’t working. Investigators said she did only cursory exams, then gave them more drugs.
Tseng and her husband, also a doctor, opened a storefront medical office in 2005 in the Los Angeles suburb of Rowland Heights. She came under scrutiny by the California Medical Board and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2008 after a pharmacy reported problems with her prescriptions.
Tseng wrote more than 27,000 prescriptions over a three-year period starting in January 2007 — an average of 25 a day, according to a DEA affidavit. Besides the deaths of the three men, the complaint said that 14 other people received drugs from Tseng and survived.
The DEA suspended her license to write prescriptions in 2010 and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California said Tseng voluntarily surrendered her medical license. Her husband continues to run their clinic.
The case highlights the problem of doctors who prescribe drugs for no reason other than getting the patient high, said Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who announced the charges. The problem involves “Dr. Feelgoods” who are paid huge amounts of money to over-prescribe drugs for no legitimate medical purpose, he said.
“Those victims die while the doctor gets rich,” Cooley said in a written statement.
The murder charges against a doctor were unusual. Attorney Ellyn Garafalo, who has defended doctors in overprescribing cases, said it is difficult to prove such murder cases because prosecutors must show that there is no legitimate medical purpose for the prescriptions and that the doctor knew there wasn’t.
“That’s a pretty high bar,” she said. “And the other problem is that a doctor can’t control what a patient does with the drugs. A doctor can’t be a policeman. The doctor has some deniability.”
Garafalo noted that prosecutors did not charge murder in the death of Michael Jackson from a drug overdose. The pop singer’s doctor was convicted last year of involuntary manslaughter.
Tseng is charged in the deaths of Vu Nguyen, 29, of Lake Forest, on March 2, 2009; Steven Ogle, 25, of Palm Desert, on April 9, 2009; and Joseph Rovero III, 21, an Arizona State University student from San Ramon, on Dec. 18, 2009.
Another 21 felony counts allege she prescribed drugs using fraud and without a legitimate purpose. Four of those counts involved prescriptions written to undercover agents.
Tseng previously said she is not guilty of any wrongdoing.
“I was really strict with my patients, and I followed the guidelines,” she said in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “If my patient decides to take a month’s supply in a day, then there’s nothing I can do about that.”
If convicted of all charges, Tseng could face a maximum state prison term of 45 years to life. Her attorneys did not answer phone messages on Thursday. She was being held on $3 million bail and was set to be arraigned Friday.