California doctor Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng was sentenced to life in prison today following her landmark conviction for the overdose deaths of three former patients. The case is the first of its kind in the U.S. and sets a shocking precedent for doctors who recklessly prescribe opioid painkillers to patients who may not need them.
“I cannot imagine what you have gone through. I have been, and will forever be praying for all of you,” Tseng said to the families of her victims.
She was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder in October, 2015. The three victims in the case were Tseng’s patients, and they were all in their 20s. The jury ruled that her over-prescription of pain medication led directly to their deaths. She’s not the first physician to be convicted of drug offenses, but she is the first physician to be charged with murder in connection with overdoses she did not personally administer.
It sends a strong message to the medical community at large, the prosecutor said, that this is a real problem, and it needs to be taken seriously. The U.S. is currently suffering from a heroin epidemic that rivals the height of the drug’s popularity in the 1970s, partially due to the fact that heroin delivers a high familiar to users of opiate-based painkillers – they’re derived from the same compounds, and heroin was initially developed as a painkiller, an alternative to morphine.
“This verdict sends a strong message to individuals in the medical community who put patients at risk for their own financial gain, in this case the doctor stole the lives of three young people in her misguided effort to get rich quick,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey told CNN.
Tseng’s attorney disagreed with the conviction and with the sentence handed down today, telling CNN that she plans to appeal the decision.
“While we disagree with the jury’s decision, we appreciate their conscientiousness,” said Tracy Green, Tseng’s attorney.
Tseng has become the poster-child for over-prescribing in the name of financial gain, a shady practice which has contributed significantly to the epidemic levels of opioid abuse in the U.S., according to the DEA.
“It’s illegal to give kickbacks to a doctor to prescribe drugs, but it is legal to give money to doctors to help promote your drug. Some doctors make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year beyond their normal practice just for working with the [pharmaceutical] industry,” Charlie Ornstein of ProPublica told ABC News.
While it’s unclear if Tseng benefited from such an arrangement with a pharmaceutical company, she was given plenty of notice that her prescription habits were bad for patients. Her office received more than nine phone calls over three years informing her that former patients had died with drugs in their system. Tseng was arrested by undercover police posing as patients seeking powerful narcotics, which she prescribed without asking any follow-up questions, even after the undercover police told her they were addicted to one or another prescription drug.
According to police, Tseng nodded thoughtfully and pulled out her prescription pad.
“She wrote them a prescription for the very thing they’re addicted to,” said prosecutor John Niedermann, “She shoved them over that cliff.”
Tseng’s mother, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times, characterized her daughter as a caring individual who was simply fooled by her patients who came to her for help and, in return, received a fistful of prescriptions.
“My daughter is someone who loved to save lives, she always believed in her patients, and always tried to help her patients. She’s innocent of all these accusations,” Tseng’s mother said.
Recently, President Obama has asked congress for $1 billion to help treat and prevent opioid addiction.
[Photos by AP Images]