Dr. Van H. Vu is shown during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He was… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
An Orange County doctor featured in a Times investigative report because 16 of his patients fatally overdosed on drugs he prescribed has had another patient death, according to recently released coroner's records.
Wayne Oviatt, a patient of Dr. Van Vu of Huntington Beach, fatally overdosed in January. The onetime Mammoth "ski bum," as his brother called him, suffered from chronic pain. He was known to abuse his medications and mix them with alcohol, and obtained drugs from various doctors, coroner's records state.
The Medical Board of California launched an investigation into Vu's practice following the Times report published in November. The inquiry into patient deaths is ongoing. In the meantime, there are no restrictions on Vu's practice.
Dying for Relief: A Los Angeles Times investigation
Vu declined to comment through an attorney who cited confidentiality laws governing patient care.
Oviatt, 56, of Huntington Beach, died of a cocktail of prescription drugs, including morphine, according to coroner's records. Vu was one of two doctors who prescribed him the drug. Vu's prescription was filled in the closest proximity to Oviatt's death — about a week before the Times article appeared.
The death comes to light as California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and other lawmakers are pressing for passage of a package of bills targeting prescription drug deaths.
Steinberg amended one of the bills this week in an effort to give the medical board greater power to protect the public when it investigates alleged overprescribing. The bill would give the board the authority to pull medical records from a physician's office without a patient's permission or a court order. It comes after complaints by the board that its investigators have difficulty convincing potentially addicted patients to cooperate with investigations and that judges have been unwilling to issue subpoenas.
Steinberg's bill also seeks to make it easier for the board to stop a physician from prescribing dangerous drugs while an investigation is pending.
"Currently, they are hamstrung," Steinberg said in an interview Wednesday.
Medical board spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson declined to comment on the investigation into Vu, a board certified physician who specializes in pain management.
The Times reported last year that Vu led a list of 71 physicians who had prescribed drugs to three or more patients who died of overdoses or related causes. The finding was part of an analysis of 3,733 prescription drug-related fatalities in Southern California from 2006 through 2011, which found that nearly half involved at least one drug that had been prescribed to the decedent by a physician.
In an interview with The Times last year, Vu said that he had been unaware of many of his patients' deaths and that learning of them was "eye opening."
He declined to speak about individual patients but agreed to speak about his practice in general. He said most of his patients are referred by other doctors, who turn to him as "a last resort" for patients who have been battling pain for years. Many patients come to him already dependent on narcotics, he said.
Vu said he conducts routine urine tests to make sure they take their medications as prescribed and do not use illegal drugs. He said he regularly uses a state-run prescription monitoring program to see whether any of his patients are also obtaining drugs from other doctors.
Oviatt's brother, Ken, was skeptical that Vu maintained such vigilance.
He said he and his mother complained to Vu's office on several occasions over the years about his brother's drug abuse and asked that his medications either be curtailed or cut off. He said his brother routinely mixed pills with alcohol and obtained prescriptions from multiple doctors, which should have shown up on the database Vu said he uses.
Ken Oviatt said his brother had legitimate pain associated with a skiing accident and a fall down two flights of stairs years earlier, which resulted in a brain injury. He had recently fallen while intoxicated and hurt his head.
"He was addicted. Totally out of it. A zombie," Ken Oviatt said in a recent interview. "He would just sit there all day. It was ridiculous."
He said neither Vu nor his staff was moved by the families' complaints.
"They said relatives come in here all the time. We have to go by what the patient says," he said.
Ken Oviatt said he and his mother, who passed away in 2011, eventually stopped complaining.
Despite coroner's records showing that Oviatt last filled a morphine prescription from Vu in November, his brother said a family member took Oviatt to Vu to get a prescription for the drug a couple of days prior to his death, which was also filled.