Sometimes when you ask a question, it sounds like the setup for a punchline. But there was nothing funny about the question asked of Dr. Hsiu Ying “Lisa” Tseng of Los Angeles. The question asked was, “How do you know you’re a bad doctor?” The answer was, “When your patients are dying.” But Tseng didn’t take responsibility for causing the deaths of several young men from prescription pain pills in California. She was just writing prescriptions, she claimed, and she couldn’t help it if they didn’t follow prescribing instructions.
While journalists all over the country are hailing Tseng’s conviction for second-degree murder as a landmark decision, people concerned about the epidemic abuse of prescription pain pills in California are still reeling from the facts surrounding the case, and also the two-week deliberation by jurors who almost couldn’t bring the verdict home.
The History of the Case
Tseng first made the news back in March 2012, when she was arrested on charges of wrongful death in the cases of three men who died in 2009. Two of them were from Lake Forest and Palm Desert, while the third traveled to see Tseng from Arizona, where he was in his senior year at the University of Arizona. Tseng’s pill mill had become so widely known among the addiction community that people like the Arizona victim were willing to travel that far to get prescription pain pills in California.
The Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley referred to Tseng as one among many “Dr. Feelgoods” who care little for the patients they see. For them the bottom line is how fast they can get the patients out of their office and the money into their pockets.
Way back in 2007, a county coroner notified Tseng that one of her patients had died of prescription pain pills in California. Six months later, another one overdosed. According to Amanda Myers writing for the Times Herald, there was even a patient who overdosed but revived right in her suite of offices. Families of her patients begged her to stop her prescribing practices. Even so, she continued to see patients briefly—many reported a three-minute office visit—and scribble out her prescriptions. Cha-ching.
With her apparently nonchalant continuation of such deadly prescribing practices, the victims’ parents as well as the prosecution team breathed a collective sigh of relief when her bail was set at three million dollars. Prosecutors state, however, that she wrote orders for more than 27,000 prescription pain pills in California between 2007 and 2010, averaging 25 per day. Prosecutors reported she earned five million dollars in one three-year period. During the closing remarks, the chief prosecutor quoted her receptionist, who claimed that Tseng told her, “They’re druggies, they can’t wait.”
Prosecutors were aware of at least twelve of her patients altogether who died from prescription pain pills in California, but she faced charges for the deaths of only three because there was insufficient evidence to prove guilt in the deaths of the other nine. One of them was a possible suicide. Several of the victims’ families filed civil charges against Tseng, which she settled out of court. The other eight were also involved with other doctors. Juries cannot bring a murder verdict without proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In fact, many of the jurors who deliberated on the facts in Tseng’s case left the court in tears at the conclusion of the case. They spent two weeks deliberating and at one point they could not agree on a verdict of second-degree murder. At that point they moved on to consider manslaughter, but they returned to and found true the verdict of second-degree murder.
She not only made it easy to get prescription pain pills in California, she also wrote prescriptions without argument for muscle relaxants and tranquilizers. As a doctor she would have known that those three types of medication taken in combination are deadly.
Dr. Feelgood—or Dr. Death, if you will—kept few if any records on her patients. When the Medical Board of California asked her to submit records, according to Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann, she fabricated records and claimed that she was weaning them off prescription pain pills. In California or anywhere, you do not do that by adding Xanax and muscle relaxants to the mix.
Near the end of their investigation, she also wrote hydrocodone prescriptions for three separate undercover agents, although prosecutors couldn’t make charges stick in one of those cases. The names of her three victims were Joey Rovero, 21—the Arizona college student who left the state to buy prescription pain pills in California—and also Vu Nguyen, 29, and Steven Ogle, 25. Some of those whose deaths could not be charged to Tseng included Matthew Stavron, Ryan Latham, and Naythan Kennedy. All of their names deserve to be remembered. As Rovero’s mother said, after waiting six long years for the case to go to trial and yield a guilty verdict, “I wish he was here, certainly, but his life has made a difference.” Let’s hope it’s true.
Consequences for Pill Docs: Prescription Pain Pills in California
In the past states across the country have been hesitant to prosecute doctors, and especially to bring murder charges against them. Too often the proof linking victims to the doctors just isn’t there. Tseng’s conviction should send a message loud and clear to the slaughterers who run pill mills everywhere: This country is tired of pill mills where hapless addicts can too easily obtain prescription pain pills, in California, in Georgia, in Texas, or anywhere. It’s time to take a stand.
What Should You Do?
If you’re hooked into an addiction so terrible that you regularly visit a so-called physician who could care less whether you live or die, then it’s time to look into the option of methadone at a local treatment program for prescription pain pills. In California, your treatment may be covered by Medi-Cal, and you can find bright, cheerful, certified treatment programs operated by licensed counselors and specially trained physicians to get you through the hard part.
The hardest part, actually, is the worry you’ll feel wondering what to expect when you call. You’ll meet with a counselor who will ask you all kinds of questions about yourself—not just about your addiction but questions so that he or she can learn all about you. You will become the patient of doctors and nurses who truly care about their jobs, working at a place that offers treatment for prescription pain pills in California because they believe that each and every life is worth saving. It’s what they do. Now all you have to do, is call.