A report recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drew a scary picture of prescription drug problems in the U.S. “The epidemic of prescription drug overdoses in the United States has worsened over the last decade, and by 2008, drug overdose deaths (36,450) were approaching the number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes (39,973), the leading cause of injury death in the United States.”
“These increases occurred,” the report read, “despite numerous warnings and recommendations over the past decade for voluntary education of providers about more cautious use of OPRs [opioid pain relievers].”
Some doctors just aren’t getting the message: One study showed that only about 3 in 100 physicians account for more than 60 in 100 OPR prescriptions. One of them, it appears, might be Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng, an osteopath practicing in a Los Angeles suburb. Last month, authorities finally said “enough” to Tseng, and charged her with murder in connection with three fatal overdoses.
Narcotic drugs-OPRs-are at the heart of this grim reality. We’ve looked at their dicey history before, and efforts to make them safer. By 2010, the report said, OPR sales were sufficient to medicate every American adult with a standard dose of hydrocodone (Vicodin) every four hours for month. Is it any wonder that sales of these morphine-like drugs such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Dilaudid paralleled the OD death trend?
As recounted by the Los Angeles Times, Tseng also stands accused of recklessly prescribing narcotic painkillers and other addictive drugs, but the murder charge is, according to The Times, “a rare attempt to hold a physician criminally liable for patients’ deaths.”
Tseng told The Times in 2010 that she had been confronted about her prescribing habits by her patients’ loved ones. At the time, she absolved herself of any problem they might be having. “‘They call me all sorts of names – drug doctor, drug-dealing doctor.… I tell parents a lot of times it’s their problem.”
The three dead patients named in the district attorney’s complaint died in 2009 after traveling long distances to see Tseng, a general practitioner. One came all the way from Arizona.
According to The Times, the Drug Enforcement Administration had been investigating Tseng for years even as her patients continued to overdose. The feds were considering charging her under a drug-dealing statute.
In addition to the deaths, the L.A. district attorney has charged Tseng with 20 counts of prescribing painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs to people who had no legitimate need for the medications. She was nabbed by investigators working under cover as “patients.” The drugs she allegedly prescribed included the common black-market drugs oxycodone and alprazolam. Some of Tseng’s patients had been charged with dealing drugs, and family members told The Times that they suspected their loved ones of selling some of their prescriptions to finance their habit.
Tseng was in deep trouble even before her murder rap. She had agreed previously to surrender her medical license in settlement of gross negligence charges related to more than a dozen patients (three of whom died) to whom she allegedly prescribed excessive amounts of drugs without taking the standard-care precautions of checking a state-run prescription database to see if they were already being prescribed similar drugs from other doctors.
Cases like Tseng’s and that of Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, are highly unusual. Brian Liang, director of the Institute of Health Law Studies at the California Western School of Law, told The Times, “We don’t generally criminalize negative medical outcomes. It is very rare for a physician to get hit with gross negligence to the point of criminality. That’s a very difficult standard.”
Said Tseng to The Times a couple of years ago: “I never intended to kill anybody.”
But it looks like she did. And it looks like she was given plenty of time to do it. Yes, it’s nice that somebody is bringing down the hammer on a supposed “caregiver” who’s really a dangerous threat. But we want to know what took you so long?