Doctor tried on charges he ran 'pill mill'
WICHITA, Kan. — Prosecutors plan to portray a Kansas doctor at his trial as "the candy man" who illegally provided painkillers to drug addicted patients to boost his bottom line. Meanwhile, defense attorneys claim he's a compassionate health care provider who gave high doses to chronic pain sufferers because that's what they need.
Jury selection started Monday for what could be a two-month trial for Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife and nurse Linda Schneider. The couple are charged with illegally prescribing drugs linked to dozens of deaths, but they've found champions in a national patient advocacy group that claims federal prosecutions have made doctors so reluctant to prescribe drugs that pain patients suffer needlessly.
The Schneiders are charged with conspiring to illegally dispense prescription drugs, defrauding health insurance programs and patients and money laundering. They face four counts of illegally prescribing drugs that contributed to 21 deaths, but court documents tie them to 47 other deaths as well.
In a sweeping indictment, the government claims the 56-year-old doctor, who was also known as "Schneider the writer," peddled drugs to make money, sometimes giving prescriptions to patients who had already overdosed on the same medications. The indictment describes his clinic as a "pill mill" that was open 11 hours a day every day and scheduled patients 10 minutes apart.
Schneider ignored warning signs that patients were abusing, diverting or becoming addicted to medications, and his clinic did not change its practices despite patients' deaths, the indictment said. Linda Schneider, 52, forged her husband's name on prescriptions and bragged to job applicants that the clinic wrote more narcotics scripts than any other in the state, it said.
The Schneider Medical Clinic was a sprawling medical facility with 14 exam rooms, a Mexican decor with two water fountains and sky dome in the lobby. But the indictment said it was poorly run, with medical records often missing or incomplete and inexperienced physician assistants receiving little supervision.
Defense attorneys, however, described the clinic as state-of-the-art and the couple as devoted health care professionals who provided medical services the community needed. They deny the Schneiders caused any deaths, and Lawrence Williamson, the attorney for Stephen Schneider, said federal prosecutors have unfairly portrayed him as "an evil person."
"He is not. He is a human who has been affected by the government overreaching in this case," Williamson said.
The Schneiders have received support from the New Mexico-based Pain Relief Network, a nonprofit patient advocacy group created to help lawyers protect doctors against prosecutions that it describes as government persecution. The group says federal prosecutors have made many doctors afraid to prescribe the high doses many chronic pain patients need to lead normal lives.
The group's president, Siobhan Reynolds, is the subject of a separate grand jury investigation for alleged conspiracy because of her involvement with the Schneider case. Her initial refusal to turn over e-mails and other subpoenaed documents led to a contempt citation and $36,500 in fines before she relented and turned over the material.
"Win, lose or draw," she said before the trial started, "I know that these lawyers gave it all they had, this family gave it all it had, and I and my family gave it all we had. And you just can't do better than that."
U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Jim Cross declined to comment other than to say the government's case will be laid out during its opening statement.
Larry Wall, a malpractice attorney who represents the families of several of the Schneider's patients, declined to comment as the case went to trial. But he said the nation, overall, has been flooded with narcotics in the past 10 years.
"I think that would argue against the proposition that doctors are afraid to prescribe," he said.