Crime & Courts

Haysville doctor's trial for misprescribing narcotics to begin after two years of delays

Two years and four months after being arrested, Stephen and Linda Schneider are set to go to trial this week.

The former Haysville doctor and his wife, a licensed practical nurse who managed the couple's medical clinic, have been under house arrest for more than a year, waiting for a jury to decide whether or not they broke the law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway said Stephen and Linda Schneider illegally prescribed painkillers that led to fatal overdoses of 68 patients. The couple is directly charged with contributing to the deaths of 21 people.

Defense lawyers say the clinic operated a complex practice caring for people who suffered from chronic pain and needed complicated schedules of prescriptions to treat them.

"This case has uprooted their lives, even though they're innocent," said Lawrence Williamson, one of the Schneiders' lawyers. "But we are confident that when a jury hears the full story, justice will prevail."

Pre-trial court battles

About 100 potential jurors have been summoned to the federal courthouse in Wichita, after completing lengthy pre-trial questionnaires.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today before U.S. District Judge Monti Belot.

The trial begins after contentious court battles, which saw prosecutors appeal a decision by Belot to limit testimony before the trial began.

Such legal arguments, and waiting for a Court of Appeals decision, have contributed to the two years it has taken to bring the case before a jury.

It's also the reason the trial could take 12 weeks to present to the jury.

In February, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Belot's attempt to limit the prosecution to 10 days to present its case. Prosecutors have listed 95 witnesses and some 500 exhibits in their case.

Complex issues such as prescription drug laws and billing to government health care services will be at the heart of the case.

The defense is expected to focus on limits to a doctor's care and the patient's individual responsibilities to properly use the medicines prescribed to them.

Clinic history

The Schneiders opened their clinic in Haysville in 2002 and operated as a pain management practice. They said they treated patients suffering from chronic and painful ailments.

Some patients have said the Schneiders helped them when other doctors wouldn't. Others say the clinic operated irresponsibly, writing unnecessary prescriptions, some leading to overdose deaths.

Prosecutors say Linda Schneider hired people to assist in health care who had no formal medical training, including family members and a man who was an illegal immigrant but who she claimed was her adopted son.

Linda Schneider is also charged with signing her husband's name on prescriptions when he wasn't in the office.

The same year the clinic opened, prosecutors say, patients began to die from overdoses of painkillers.

Two died the first year, 13 the next. Another 13 died in 2004, 17 in 2005, 10 in 2006, 11 in 2007 and two in 2008.

"The average age of these patients was 41, with the youngest being 18 years old, and the oldest being 61," prosecutors said in the indictment.

Federal authorities raided the clinic on Sept. 13, 2005.

The Schneiders were arrested under federal grand jury indictment five days before Christmas in 2007.

Claims in indictment

Prosecutors say the Schneider Clinic did not change its course of treatment and practices, despite the deaths.

"If a provider practicing Pain Management makes a patient worse, and the provider does not change the course of treatment, the provider is not practicing legitimate medicine," the indictment said.

Prosecutors say physicians assistants were often left unsupervised and prescriptions were written to patients despite evidence that those people were abusing drugs.

The indictment claims the Schneider Clinic refilled prescriptions earlier and more often than they were supposed to and would continue to give dangerous mixes of narcotics amid signs that the drugs were making the patients worse.

Other doctors and hospitals noticed.

"During the years 2003 through 2006, Schneider Medical Clinic patients were admitted to one Wichita hospital Emergency Room for overdoses on approximately 94 occasions," the indictment contends. "By comparison, all other doctors accounted for an average of less than 5 overdoses each."

Alleged practices

Prosecutors also say the clinic ran an assembly line of patients through its doors, scheduling appointments every 10 minutes and allowing numerous "walk-in" patients, who walked out with prescriptions for strong narcotics in potentially lethal amounts.

The clinic would often see 100 or more patients in a day, the indictment charges.

"There was an overwhelming number of patients to be seen, resulting in rushed and insufficient examinations," the indictment said.

Records were often missing, or illegible, prosecutors said.

The Schneiders are also accused of overcharging Medicare and Medicaid for services they didn't provide.

During the six years the Haysville clinic operated, prosecutors say, it billed more than $10 million for drugs and services.

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