Kan. doctor faces sentencing in 'pill mill' case

Oct 19 2010 - 10:27am

WICHITA, Kan.  -- A woman whose mother died in 2006 of a drug overdose took the stand Tuesday and told a Kansas doctor and his wife at their sentencing that she had more hatred for them than anyone else.

Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, were found guilty in June of unlawfully writing prescriptions, health care fraud and money laundering following a nearly eight-week trial. Jurors convicted them of a moneymaking conspiracy that prosecutors linked to 68 overdose deaths.

Julie Wilburn told the court that the hardest thing she had to do in her life is go to her grandparents and tell them that her mother, Debra White, had died. Her grandfather took the news so hard that he died 38 days later, she said.

"How do you forgive someone who shows no remorse?" she asked.

Wilburn said her 53-year-old mother was not ready for her death, and there are 68 families who will never see their relatives again.

She turned to face the Schneiders and told them, "You are responsible for that. You are to blame. You are a coward for not taking any responsibility."

Other witnesses are scheduled to testify Monday afternoon, but the judge is not expected to announce his sentence Tuesday.

The indictment described the Schneiders' clinic in Haysville, a Wichita suburb, as a "pill mill" that was open 11 hours a day and scheduled patients 10 minutes apart. The clinic wrote prescriptions 76 times for patients after they went to hospital emergency rooms for overdoses -- sometimes involving the same drug, prosecutors said during the couple's trial.

Stephen Schneider testified during the trial that he was trying to help and had been duped by some painkiller addicts. He told jurors he never meant to hurt or defraud anyone. His wife did not take the stand.

Prosecutors are asking for life sentences for the 57-year-old physician and his 52-year-old wife, saying the punishment would promote respect for the law within the medical community. Defense attorneys argue that such sentences would be unduly harsh and discourage doctors from prescribing certain drugs for fear that patients could mislead them or not use medications as directed.

The couple face at least a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Among those planning to attend the sentencing is Robert Wick, whose 45-year-old wife, Robin Geist-Wick, died in May 2007 of fentanyl intoxication after she went to the clinic for severe migraines. Wick said Monday that he wants to see justice served.

Fentanyl is a powerful sedative approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only for end-of-life cancer patients suffering severe pain. Cephalon Inc., one of the world's top 10 biopharmaceutical makers, has admitted in a separate case that it illegally marketed the highly addictive narcotic to doctors for non-approved uses, such as treating migraines.

"I would like to see a life sentence," said Wick, who has filed a malpractice lawsuit against the Schneiders, another clinic doctor and Cephalon. "I am not only blaming the Schneiders, I am blaming Cephalon."

At the Schneiders' trial, their attorneys tried to cast doubt on autopsy results and show Stephen Schneider referred Geist-Wick to specialists for testing.

Before her death, Geist-Wick wrote the doctor a letter on Aug. 24, 2006, thanking him for easing the severe migraines she had suffered for more than 13 years.

"You listened to my mother, my husband and to me. You prescribed medicine for me that I had not ever heard of. It was at least worth a try. From that day on, I have received my life back. Rarely since have I shed a tear because of pain," Geist-Wick wrote.

Linda Schneider's sister, Pat Hatcher, also plans to attend the sentencing hearing.

"We support Steve and Linda and we stand behind them and we love them with all our hearts," Hatcher said, declining further comment Monday.

In seeking the life sentences, prosecutors told the court that jurors found that the Schneiders' conduct resulted in serious bodily injury to 14 people, and the deaths of 10 patients. Prosecutors argued that if this had been a serial murder case instead of a drug dispensing and health care fraud case, there would be no question that life sentences should be imposed.

The couple's supporters contend the prosecution of doctors who prescribe high doses of pain relievers had led to undertreatment of chronic pain.

 

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