A Kansas doctor who ran a clinic linked to dozens of overdose deaths was sentenced Wednesday to 30 years in prison while his wife got 33 years in a case the judge said was an "avoidable tragedy motivated by greed."
Dr. Stephen Schneider looked grim and his wife blinked back tears as their sentences were pronounced in U.S. District Court in Wichita.
The Haysville couple were convicted in June of unlawfully writing prescriptions, health care fraud and money laundering. Jurors convicted them of a moneymaking conspiracy that prosecutors linked to 68 overdose deaths.
U.S. District Judge Monti Belot told the 57-year-old physician that the evidence showed that he earned and deserved the nickname "Schneider the Writer" because in many cases writing scripts was his only form of medical care.
"For whatever reason, Steven Schneider utterly failed to live up to his oath to 'do no harm,'" Belot said.
The judge said the doctor was put on every possible notice that the controlled substances he was prescribing _ particularly the potent painkiller Actiq _ was addicting, harming and killing his patients but did nothing to stop it.
Belot reserved some of his most scathing comments for Linda Schneider, 52, who has a nursing degree but didn't practice medicine at the clinic, where she served as an office manager.
He characterized her as more culpable for creating and perpetuating the clinic as a generator of income rather than a place for competent medical care. He blamed the doctor for knowing that the clinic was mismanaged and doing nothing to stop the practice.
"Had she not been involved in the operation of the clinic, or had she approached her role there in a professional and responsible way, none of us would be here today," Belot said. "That doesn't excuse Stephen Schneider's wrongful acts, but it may somewhat explain them."
Besides conspiracy, the Schneiders were found guilty on five counts of unlawfully writing prescriptions and 11 health care fraud counts. Linda Schneider was found guilty of 15 money laundering charges while Stephen Schneider was convicted of two.
Although the doctor has no criminal record, his wife has a previous felony conviction for fraud.
"I believe the evidence has shown Linda Schneider is a scheming, manipulative, uncaring criminal who believed, erroneously, that she was smart enough to 'get away with it,'" Belot said. "A big mistake on her part."
The government contends losses for clinic services and prescriptions was more than $20 million, with some 93 insurance programs and more than 500 patients defrauded.
Belot did not immediately rule on the restitution issues.
The judge dismissed defense arguments that harsh sentences will deter other doctors from prescribing to chronic pain patients, saying that sounded like the "irresponsible propaganda" of the Pain Relief Network, a group that has opposed what it sees as federal efforts to crack down on chronic pain treatment.
The judge used the phrases "Bozo the Clown" and "ship of fools" to describe the outfit and said he hoped the outcome would help curtail its activities.
When the people leading it are "so stupid that they support what occurred in this case, they demean the efforts of legitimate medical providers to help persons suffering from chronic pain," the judge said.
PRN president Siobhan Reynolds said Belot's comments about her group reflect poorly on him and his office.
"He knows perfectly well there is very little I can do to answer him, and he is showing a real lack of regard for what the rest of the people in the United States regard as my natural rights: my right to dissent, my right to support innocent people who are being railroaded," she said.
The Justice Department has already succeeded in stopping her advocacy by fining her and her organization, she said.
"The Schneiders put money before medicine," U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said in a news release. "They illegally dispensed prescription pain killers without a medical purpose and without regard to the fact their patients were suffering from physical and mental conditions that made them vulnerable to the risks of addiction, overdose and death."
The government had asked for a life sentence noting that jurors found that the Schneiders' conduct resulted in serious bodily injury to 14 people, and the deaths of 10 patients. The defense had asked for the minimum mandatory 20 years in prison.
"It wasn't what we asked for, but we were pleased with the sentencing being less than what the government requested," said Lawrence Williamson, the doctor's defense attorney. "But we still maintain he is innocent of these charges and will be filing an appeal pretty soon."
Kevin Byers, the attorney representing Linda Schneider, said they were grateful the couple did not get life sentences and that the judge gave the wife just three years more than her husband.
"The way it was going during the judge's pronouncement, we were concerned that maybe he was going to double her sentence or something because obviously he was buying into the theory she was the black widow or the mastermind," Byers said.
The Schneiders had been prepared to hear life sentences, he said.
"It still wasn't comfortable to sit through it but I don't think any of us were surprised," Byers said. "But I am surprised he went after the Pain Relief Network."
Robert Wick was emotional as he talked about his late wife, Robin Geist-Wick, who died at age 45 in May 2007 of an overdose after she went to the clinic for severe migraines. She was prescribed Actiq, a potent, highly addictive painkiller approved only for end-of-life cancer patients.
"It is over with. His peers tried him and convicted him and I am glad they found him guilty," Wick said outside the courtroom. "It is pretty much a life sentence. I am satisfied with 30 years _ that is a big chunk out of a person's life."