Doctors who prescribe hundreds of pills without medical justification, raking in millions of dollars, are the center of local and federal criminal charges.
April Rovero recently spoke at a high school in West Virginia, the state that leads in both opioid prescriptions and opioid-related deaths.
Nearly everyone in the audience knew someone affected by opioid addiction. Some of the students were in foster care because their parents died of an overdose.
Rovero’s son, Joey, died after mixing alcohol, Xanax, and oxycodone. He bought the pills after driving 360 miles with his fraternity brothers from Arizona State University, where he was a semester away from graduation in 2009.
Dr. Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng sold him the pills from her office in a strip mall in Los Angeles County. In February, Tseng was sentenced to 30 years to life for the overdose deaths of three patients, including Joey Rovero.
Tseng’s conviction for second-degree murder was a landmark one.
She became the first doctor in the United States to be convicted of murder for overprescribing medication to patients.
“We’ve reached an extreme level of closure. We feel very blessed,” Rovero told Healthline. “I talk to parents all over the country who never get a drop of closure.”
Drug dealers have often been targets of criminal prosecutions, but now doctors that routinely give out powerful and addictive prescription drugs without medical justification are facing lengthy prison sentences.
John Niedermann, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and prosecutor in the Tseng case, says he looks for a “holy cow moment” when investigating a doctor’s prescription patterns.
“Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find these moments,” he told Healthline.
In his first prescription drug case, that moment was when one office prescribed more painkillers in one month than the entire staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Another involved an undercover police officer who received a prescription for painkillers and muscle relaxants using an X-ray of a dog.
In Tseng’s case, it was how often police or the coroner’s office was calling to let her know one of her patients had died. In one instance, it was eight days apart.
“Her prescribing didn’t change in the least,” Niedermann said.
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More ‘Pill Mill’ Doctors Facing Prosecution
In the light of the opioid epidemic, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says is “doctor driven,” law enforcement officials are targeting doctors who are more than liberal with their prescription pads.
These so-called “pill mills” are under increased scrutiny as local, state, and federal agencies try to slow the growing drug overdose rate, namely by prescription painkillers.
The difference between pill mills and legitimate pain specialists is the volume of patients seen, prescriptions written, and limited medical exams. Most only accept cash payments.
On Wednesday, a psychiatrist practicing in Jonesboro, Georgia, was indicted on three counts of murder related to the overdose deaths of his patients.
Dubbed “Dr. Death,” authorities say 36 of his patients died as a result of his prescriptions, namely oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and methadone.
According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation, the psychiatrist, Narendra Nagareddy, was known as the go-to doctor to get pills. Despite receiving warnings for years, he was able to continue to give out prescriptions. He was one of the top prescribing doctors in Atlanta.
Last week, three Philadelphia doctorswere indicted by federal officials on a variety of charges related to a now-defunct National Association for Substance Abuse-Prevention & Treatment.