O.C. doc­tor placed on pro­ba­tion

Van Vu is ac­cused of gross neg­li­gence in the care of two pa­tients who fa­tally over­dosed.

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Lisa Girion and Scott Glover lisa.girion@latimes.com scott.glover@latimes.com

An Or­ange County doc­tor ac­cused of gross neg­li­gence in the care of two pa­tients who fa­tally over­dosed on drugs he pre­scribed has been placed on pro­ba­tion by the Med­i­cal Board of Cal­i­for­nia.

Van H. Vu, who owns a busy pain clinic in Hunt­ing­ton Beach, agreed not to con­test the board’s ac­cu­sa­tion, to take classes in pre­scrib­ing and record keep­ing and to sub­mit to an out­side prac­tice mon­i­tor for five years. In ex­change, the board al­lowed Vu to keep his li­cense and con­tinue pre­scrib­ing po­tent painkillers.

A 2012 Times in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed 16 pa­tients’ over­dose deaths as­so­ci­ated with Vu’s prac­tice and raised ques­tions about the med­i­cal board’s over­sight of doc­tors who pre­scribe dan­ger­ous nar­cotics. The Times found that even when the board sanc­tioned doc­tors for prob­lem pre­scrib­ing, in most cases it al­lowed them to con­tinue prac­tic­ing and pre­scrib­ing with few or no re­stric­tions. Eight doc­tors dis­ci­plined for ex­ces­sive pre­scrib­ing later had pa­tients die of over­doses or re­lated causes. Pre­scrip­tions those doc­tors wrote caused or con­trib­uted to 19 deaths, The Times found.

A board spokes­woman said the agree­ment with Vu, which took ef­fect Fri­day, served the public in­ter­est by avoid­ing the ex­pense and un­cer­tainty of a trial.

“It makes the res­o­lu­tion faster,” spokes­woman Cas­san­dra Hock­en­son said. “We still have the up­per hand. He will be watched very, very closely.... If he de­vi­ates one iota from these pro­ba­tion­ary re­quire­ments, re­vo­ca­tion is back on the ta­ble.”

Lawyers for Vu did not re­turn calls.

Sally Fin­nila-Sloane, whose brother died af­ter get­ting a pre­scrip­tion from Vu, said she was dis­ap­pointed with the board’s de­ci­sion.

“He had his hand slapped, and my brother’s dead,” she said.

The Times re­vealed that Karl Fin­nila, 43, died on a side­walk hours af­ter get­ting a pre­scrip­tion from Vu. The med­i­cal board faulted Vu for pre­scrib­ing to him even af­ter learn­ing he was sui­ci­dal and seek­ing drugs. The coro­ner left half a dozen mes­sages for Vu ask­ing for in­for­ma­tion about Fin­nila, but the calls went un­re­turned, records showed.

“How is that right? How is that fair? Where’s jus­tice?” his sis­ter asked. “The worst thing that’s hap­pened is the guy had his name pub­lished in the news­pa­per.”

A crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion opened in the wake of the Times re­port is on­go­ing, ac­cord­ing to law en­force­ment sources fa­mil­iar with the in- quiry.

In in­ter­views in 2012, Vu de­scribed him­self as a con­sci­en­tious, car­ing physi­cian. He de­clined to com­ment on in­di­vid­ual cases, cit­ing con­fi­den­tial­ity laws, but he said he treats many “very, very dif­fi­cult pa­tients” whose chronic pain is some­times com­pli­cated by sub­stance abuse and de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety or other men­tal ill­ness.

“Ev­ery sin­gle day, I try to do the best I can for ev­ery sin­gle pa­tient,” he said. “I can’t con­trol what they do once they leave my of­fice.”

The sec­ond case in the board ac­cu­sa­tion in­volved a pa­tient The Times iden­ti­fied as Jen­nifer Thurber. The 22-year-old died two days af­ter re­ceiv­ing a pre­scrip­tion for the painkiller methadone from Vu’s of­fice. Though she also had been pre­scribed drugs from other doc­tors, the board said Vu’s mul­ti­ple acts of gross neg­li­gence “caused the pa­tient’s death.”

The board said Vu’s es­ca­la­tion in the dosage of Thurber’s methadone “de­parted from the stan­dard of care.” The pills pre­scribed “over a two-day pe­riod alone could rep­re­sent the cause of death,” the com­plaint said.

Charles Thurber, an Or­ange County sher­iff ’s deputy, said he dis­agreed with the med­i­cal board’s de­ci­sion.

“My daugh­ter wanted to be a nurse,” he said. “And if it wasn’t for the toxic pre­scrip­tion she got, she’d be help­ing oth­ers like she wanted to.... He took that from her.”

‘If he de­vi­ates one iota from these pro­ba­tion­ary re­quire­ments, re­vo­ca­tion is back on the ta­ble.’ — Cas­san­dra Hock­en­son, Med­i­cal Board of Cal­i­for­nia spokes­woman

Liz O. Baylen Los An­ge­les Times

DR. VAN H. VU did not con­test an ac­cu­sa­tion of gross neg­li­gence and has been put on pro­ba­tion.

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