Doctor admits prescribing drugs ‘simply to make a profit’

A painkiller dealing doctor who previously operated a Seattle medical marijuana clinic is likely headed to federal prison.

Pleading guilty earlier this week, Dr. Hieu Tu Le was the subject of an intensive Drug Enforcement Administration investigation that saw an agent pose as a oxycodone-addicted patient. Le, 40, was apparently happy to oblige the agent and an informant.

A graduate of Saint Lucia’s less than prestigious Spartan Health Science University – its graduates are barred from practicing medicine in five U.S. states, and the entire United Kingdom – Le was a traveling anesthesiologist before he opened a clinic on Seattle’s Capitol Hill for seven months in 2012.

There, Le was in the business of prescribing medical marijuana to patients for a fee. As it turned out, he was also issuing dozens of prescriptions for oxycodone, a powerful painkiller and that has become a popular street drug, out of an Everett clinic.

Pleading guilty Tuesday, Le admitted to running a prescription mill out of the clinic, Northwest Green Medical. He also acknowledged he went so far as to simply sell the pills himself, dispensing entirely with the pretense of prescriptions.

Speaking with an undercover DEA agent, Le cast himself as an “advocate" for drug addicted patients.

“People do what they got to do, you know?” Le said in a recorded conversation with an agent posing as a drug-seeking patient. “I hear all the stories how they sell their pills, sex for drugs, all that stuff. I see them all, I treat them all, so, but I don’t judge. …

“I’ll be happy to help you guys out. Just help me help you and we all stay out of trouble.”

Investigators estimate Le's operation brought him hundreds of thousands of dollars in less than two years. The money helped pay for his $800,000 home in Snohomish, and pay down his Saint Lucia student loans.

Le, 40, faces five to seven years in prison when he is sentenced in April. A pharmacy owner and several “patients” implicated in the investigation have not been charged publicly.

In court papers, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent said the investigation into Le’s activities began in October 2012 as a Medicare fraud case.

Investigators contended Le had been soaking insurance companies during his years working out of Valley General Hospital in Monroe. Writing the court, the DEA agent said Le admitted to staff there that he’d been faking patient records for eight years in order to overcharge for his services; he was operating a mobile anesthesiology business at the time.

Le used the names of residents of a Seattle nursing home operated by his sister to create false admission records at the hospital. He then billed insurers and Medicare for anesthesia he never delivered; investigators estimated Le tried to steal $142,000 from the federal program, and managed to receive $28,500 in Medicare payments for bogus claims.

Reviewing state records, investigators then learned Le was prescribing about 2,238 oxycodone tablets each month. Between late October 2011 and late May 2013, he issued 314 oxycodone prescriptions that ultimately saw 38,384 pain pills issued.

Agents began watching Le in early February, documenting each visit to his Everett office. None of his customers went to the neighboring pharmacy, where the doctor claimed the prescriptions were being filled. Searching Le’s trash, agents found discarded pill bottles and labels.

Investigators determined Le was filling prescriptions in patients’ names without their knowledge and selling the pills to drug dealers or addicts. An informant and an undercover agent also were “treated” by Le as part of the investigation.

“The medical visits revealed that Le made no effort to conduct a full patient history, did not check with prior doctors regarding prescription history, conducted very little or no physical examination, and made no effort to establish a ‘pain management plan,’” the DEA special agent said in court papers.

“Le appeared to simply be prescribing controlled substances in order to make a profit, and without any due regard for medically-based patient need.”

Speaking with the informant, Le offered to get him or her a $100,000 insurance settlement if the informant happened to get in a car crash. Caught on tape, Le said he would make “the patient happy” and “the attorneys happy.”

Treating the DEA agent, Le told him not to talk with the police. The doctor later gave the agent – to whom he issued a medical marijuana card – an envelope filled with marijuana.

“Party favor,” Le said. “Happy New Year.”

In February, Le offered to help the agent and the informant get off of the Percocet he’d been prescribing them. When they declined, Le agreed to up the dose prescribed to the informant and took $220 in cash for the appointment.

The business appeared to have been profitable for Le. In the 18 months prior to April, he took in $616,828; nearly half of that came in cash payments.

The money appears to have gone to make his $6,500 monthly mortgage payment, as well as pay his debt to the alma mater in the Virgin Islands.

In July, federal agents searched Le’s Everett Mall Way office and an attached pharmacy, as well as his Snohomish home and his Toyota SUV. Doing so, agents recovered 369 oxycodone tabs and a bottle of ketamine, a strong sedative also used recreationally.

Le is scheduled to be sentenced April 3 by U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly. While Zilly could sentence Le to up to 20 years in prison, prosecutors and the defense agreed to request a term between five and seven years.