WICHITA, Kan. — Defense attorneys plan to seek the release of a Kansas doctor and his wife while they appeal their convictions in a case highlighting the medical treatment of chronic pain sufferers and prescription drug abuse.
Jurors found Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, guilty Thursday of conspiring to profit from illegally prescribing painkillers at a clinic that prosecutors linked to 68 overdose deaths.
Schneider, 56, operated the Schneider Medical clinic in the Wichita suburb of Haysville. Linda Schneider, 52, is a nurse who worked as the clinic's office manager. The couple hugged in the courtroom shortly before they were taken into custody.
"The abuse of prescription drugs is a serious national public health concern," U.S. Attorney Lanny Welch said in a statement. "The evidence in this case of patients suffering from overdose and death points to the fact that when prescription pain killers are unlawfully prescribed, they can be as dangerous as illegal drugs."
But Kevin Byers, Linda Schneider's attorney, said chronic pain patients can tolerate the high levels of opiates that they need to function.
Byers blamed the prosecutions nationwide of doctors such as Schneider on policy differences over opioid medications between the Food and Drug Administration that has approved them for pain and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which enforces the Controlled Substances Act.
"It is a battle between the DEA and FDA – and the doctors are all the casualties," Byers said.
Byers said he has talked to other doctors whose clinics were recently raided by the DEA.
"Most doctors will look at this and think ... 'I am board certified. I have been trained. I can trust all my patients,'" Byers said. "And then the DEA comes through kicking their door, in ninja masks, guns in their faces – and they go away for 20 to life."
Along with conspiracy, the Schneiders were found guilty of five counts of unlawfully writing prescriptions and 11 charges of health care fraud. They also faced 17 money laundering counts. Stephen Schneider was found guilty on two of those counts; Linda Schneider was found guilty of 15 money laundering charges.
The government is seeking forfeiture of their assets, but it will be up to the judge to later decide the amount.
No sentencing date has been set. Each faces up to a life sentence, with the most serious counts carrying a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for seven days before concluding the doctor had prescribed controlled substances to 68 patients who eventually died. They also found the doctor's prescriptions led to 107 overdoses at local emergency rooms.
The jury further determined that the Schneiders failed to change the clinic's prescription practices despite having notice of overdoses and deaths from the medical examiner, hospitals, law enforcement family members and others.
The doctor turned to face his wife in apparent surprise when the first guilty verdict on conspiracy to commit health care fraud was read. Both then stared down despondently as the rest of the 17-page verdict form was read.
The doctor appeared stoic when his wife tearfully told her parents and teenage daughters in the gallery that she couldn't go with them as U.S. District Judge Monti Belot cleared the courtroom. The family left without commenting to reporters.
The doctor's attorney, Lawrence Williamson, said after the verdict that it was "a sad day for our justice system."
"Dr. Schneider was practicing medicine – he wasn't being a drug dealer," Williamson said.
Siobhan Reynolds, president of the Pain Relief Network, has championed the Schneiders' case. She contends the prosecution of doctors who prescribe high doses of pain relievers is leading to undertreatment of chronic pain.
"The crisis in pain treatment is going to deepen even further," Reynolds said outside the courtroom. "People are going to have trouble getting care because doctors are afraid this is going to happen to them."