In landmark case, L.A. doctor sentenced to 30-years in jail for overdose deaths

The guilty verdict shows the evolving understanding of drug addiction, and the need to find solutions for a growing epidemic.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Hsiu-Ying 'Lisa' Tseng sits in a Los Angeles courtroom during her arraignment, March 16, 2012. Dr. Tseng, convicted of murder for prescribing 'crazy, outrageous amounts' of painkillers that killed three patients, faces a life sentence Friday, after her conviction on second-degree murder charges in a landmark case.

[Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time to reflect sentencing]

A Los Angeles-area doctor who was convicted of murder for prescribing too many painkillers to her patients has been sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Hsiu-Ying "Lisa" Tseng was convicted of second-degree murder in October after a dozen of her patients died from prescription drug abuse. This landmark decision marked the first time a physician has been held legally responsible for the death of a patient related to prescriptions drugs. The case could be precedent setting as the United States grapples with a rampant problem of painkiller abuse that has been linked to the growing epidemic of heroin addiction.

Dr. Tseng, whose practice was based in Rowland Heights, Calif., was only charged with killing three patients because some of the deaths included other factors, including one possible suicide.

Her conviction came at a time of a nationwide initiative to reduce the number of “pill mills,” or pharmacies, clinics, and doctors that knowingly prescribe medication to patients that do not need them. President Obama’s 2017 budget recommendations also includes approximately $1 billion in funding directly targeted at reducing the nationwide epidemic of heroin and prescription-pill addiction.

The number of heroin-related deaths has climbed over the years, to just over 10,000 in 2014 alone, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For deaths from prescription pain relievers, the number is even higher, at 20,000.

No community or age group has been immune from the epidemic; it has spread in both cities and suburbs, and among the wealthy and the very poor. Not only are more people abusing heroin, they are also more likely to be using, and abusing, prescription drugs at the same time, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tseng prescribed powerful painkillers to her patients, including oxycodone – commonly sold under the brand name Percocet – and hydrocodone, more commonly known by its brand name Vicodin. During her trial, Deputy District Attorney John Niedermann told jurors that Tseng prescribed "crazy, outrageous amounts of medication" to patients who simply didn’t need them.

"Something is wrong with what you're doing if your patients are dying," Mr. Niedermann said.

Defense lawyer Tracy Green said Tseng’s patients said they were legitimately in pain and later became dependent on the drugs. They would then hide their addictions by seeing doctors besides Tseng and going to other pharmacies to pick up their prescriptions.

Prosecutors said that Tseng failed to keep thorough records on the patients who had died, and ignored the pleas of family members who demanded that she stop prescribing drugs to their loved ones.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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