Crime & Courts

What feds found when they investigated Wichita pain-med doctor

Steven R. Henson
Steven R. Henson Courtesy

It’s a detailed account of a federal investigation involving an undercover agent and confidential informants. It began in 2014 with pharmacists’ concerns that a Wichita doctor was over-prescribing controlled pain medications.

During the probe, investigators collected reports of the doctor giving pain-med prescriptions for $300 in cash at a time, with few questions asked.

At the end of the time line, a man died of a pain-med overdose after getting a prescription from the doctor.

The narrative comes from 18 pages of investigative findings filed this past week in federal court by prosecutors in an ongoing criminal case against the doctor – Steven Henson.

To investigators, the case fit the pattern of how people go to lengths to get more and more pain meds. Pain-med abuse is one of the nation’s biggest health problems.

In January 2016, federal prosecutors charged Henson with 31 criminal counts including conspiring to distribute prescription drugs outside his medical practice and unlawfully distributing oxycodone, methadone and alprazolam. Three of Henson’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty. Henson, 55, has pleaded not guilty. Within a month of the charges, a state board suspended his medical license.

On Thursday Henson’s attorney, Kurt Kerns, said Henson only provided prescriptions and knew that the state was tracking them as part of its prescription monitoring program. There is “not a single illegal prescription, and he didn’t give a single pill,” Kerns said.

“He is either an honest person trying to help people dealing with their pain” or, according to “the government’s theory … the world’s dumbest criminal,” knowing that the state was watching his prescribing, Kerns said.

Referring to investigators’ accounts of people who got prescriptions from Henson, Kerns said the people “are saying things about the doctor that are negative” to avoid or reduce their charges.

“This isn’t like the Schneider case at all,” Kerns said. “Schneider was clearly running a pill mill.”

In 2010, a federal court jury in Wichita found Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, guilty of prescription practices that led to the deaths of 10 patients. The Schneiders operated a Haysville clinic.

Jim Cross, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Friday that he couldn’t comment on the Henson case because it is ongoing.

The investigation

The investigative time line laid out in the court document written by prosecutors began in October 2014 when a Drug Enforcement Agency official received a complaint about Henson from a Wichita pharmacist. The pharmacist said he thought Henson was prescribing too many controlled substances used as pain meds. The pharmacist found that other pharmacies had stopped filling the doctor’s prescriptions, the court document said.

Investigators determined in 2014 that Henson had two offices: Kansas Men’s Clinic, 3636 N. Ridge Road, which described itself on a website as being focused on men’s sexual health; and a second office at 1861 N. Rock Road, Suite 201, the document said.

A month later, in November 2014, a Kansas Board of Pharmacy inspector told the DEA she had “received one to four complaints a day from Kansas pharmacists who are concerned about the validity of Henson’s prescriptions and whether they are obligated to fill the prescriptions,” the document said. Their specific concern: “large quantities of oxycodone, hydrocodone, alprazolam, and phentermine.”

The state inspector said a pharmacist spoke of one Henson prescription recipient who drove 175 miles from Meade to Wichita. Another complaint came from an Emporia pharmacy, 88 miles from Wichita.

Pharmacists told the inspector “that if they fill one Henson patient, five more will show up the next day … that the pharmacies do not have the controlled substances in stock to keep up with the rate.”

The inspector said Wichita-area pharmacists knew the dangers of prescribing large amounts of pain meds “due to the notable criminal conviction” of the Schneiders in 2010.

In December 2014, DEA investigators discovered that a couple traveled 163 miles from Lawrence to see Henson for prescriptions filled at an Emporia pharmacy.

Investigators said the situation fit a common pattern: “That people who seek … high doses of narcotic controlled substances will travel great distances to receive these prescriptions. These same people will call several pharmacies until they find a pharmacy that has enough of the controlled substance in stock.”

A number of people went to fill their prescriptions from Henson at a southeast Wichita pharmacy, where a pharmacist told investigators that December that “she did not feel comfortable filling his prescriptions.” Once, when the pharmacist tried to verify the prescription with Henson, “he appeared at the pharmacy in person to explain his justification.” The pharmacist “said she has never had a physician do this before.”

That same month, investigators followed the Lawrence couple from Wichita to Kansas City, Kan., where the man got into another vehicle for a short time. Investigators suspected it was a drug transaction. Later, police in Independence, Mo., arrested the person who met with Henson’s patient. Police confiscated heroin and oxycodone. The person admitted buying the drugs from Henson’s patient and said the patient had been prescribed oxycodone.

Scotch and a gun

One man told investigators that he met with Henson for about five minutes at the Rock Road office, and that he lied about having a neck injury. Henson didn’t ask him to fill out paperwork, didn’t request medical records, didn’t evaluate him and didn’t have a prescription pad.

The next day, the man went to Henson’s North Ridge office and received prescriptions for methadone and other drugs and gave the doctor $100. He kept some of the medicines but gave most of the other drugs to his brother to sell, the document said. The man said it took three weeks to sell the drugs “because Henson has so many patients that there were just too many pills on the street in Wichita,” it said.

On Feb. 24, 2015, a Wichita police detective saw Henson drive from his home to his North Ridge office, where he met with Nicholas McGovern before the clinic opened. The detective followed McGovern to a convenience store near the doctor’s office. McGovern met with a couple who get prescriptions from Henson.

According to a confidential informant, “McGovern meets with Henson and receives multiple prescriptions for multiple people,” the document said.

The people whose names were on the prescriptions “give all or part of the controlled substances from the prescription to McGovern to use or to illegally sell.”

One informant said Henson “would have a glass of scotch during their visits.”

The doctor also carried a handgun during the visits and said he was armed “because of the clientele he deals with,” the court document said.

‘What is your story?’

Investigators spied on the Lawrence couple as they left an Overland Park pharmacy and drove to a restaurant where they sold a man 18 oxycodone pills for $360.

The Lawrence woman said she had gone to Henson for two years after seeing him identified online as a pain specialist. She wore long sleeves when she went to him for prescriptions, she said – so he wouldn’t see “her bruises and marks from where she injects heroin.” She began using heroin, the document said, “because it was cheaper (than) the oxycodone pills.”

On May 4, 2015, a female undercover DEA agent made an appointment with Henson by phone. She got to his Men’s Clinic at 8:15 a.m., “before the posted operating hours,” and stood outside until Henson let her in.

“What is your story?” he asked her, according to the document. He didn’t have her fill out paperwork on allergies or medical history. He only took a copy of her undercover driver’s license, which listed an Olathe address. She put $300 on the counter before leaving. There was no receipt.

Kerns, Henson’s attorney, said many patients don’t have insurance and pay doctors in cash and that it’s not illegal.

On May 27, 2015, the undercover DEA agent and confidential informant met Henson at the Men’s Clinic at 5:49 p.m., after normal business hours. They each paid $300 in cash for their prescriptions.

A death

Then on June 29, 2015, the state prescription monitoring program showed that McGovern filled an alprazolam prescription dated May 4, the document said. Three weeks later, he filled a Henson prescription for methadone.

The next day, July 23, 2015, Newton police found McGovern unresponsive at his home after his girlfriend called 911.

A man at the house told police that McGovern had taken 25 to 30 methadone tablets that day. He died at Wichita’s Wesley Medical Center the day after police found him. An autopsy found that he suffered “a mixed overdose of alprazolam and methadone.”