Crime & Courts

Wichita doctor who sold pain-med prescriptions for cash sentenced to life in prison

A Wichita doctor who illegally distributed addictive prescription drugs has been sentenced to life in federal prison.

Judge J. Thomas Marten said it is “quite clear” that Dr. Steven R. Henson, 57, wrote multiple prescriptions without a legitimate medical purpose and “abused his position of trust as a licensed physician.”

“I have sentenced people to life before,” Marten said in court Friday. “They were people who took guns and shot people.”

The investigation began after a pharmacist raised concerns that a doctor was over-prescribing controlled pain medications. One man died from an overdose after getting a prescription from the doctor.

“I want this case to send a message to physicians and the health care community,” U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a statement. “Unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances is a federal crime that could end a medical career and send an offender to prison.

“We are dealing with an epidemic. Nationwide, more than 70,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses. That is more than all the American casualties during the war in Vietnam.”

Nicholas “Nick” McGovern died in July 2015 after overdosing on a mix of alprazolam and methadone prescribed to him by Henson. It was the count relating to McGovern’s death on which Henson was sentenced to life in prison.

“There is a big difference between losing a family member and still being able to see a family member through a piece of glass,” said McGovern’s stepdaughter, Tatiana Lujano, at the sentencing.

Lujano called McGovern her “sweet daddy” before breaking down in tears.

“He was like my real dad,” she said. “He was my father figure for as long as I can remember. He is the reason I am the young woman I am today.”

She said that Henson was “all about the money.”

Defense attorney Michael Thompson contended during sentencing that Henson wasn’t writing the prescriptions “to make easy money on the side” because he didn’t need to. He said that the doctor “tried to do what he thought was best for his patients.”

“I only had one goal in life as a physician,” Henson said, “and that was to take excellent care of patients and to increase their functionality,” adding that he tried to serve the under-served in the community and worldwide through mission trips.

But the judge cited Henson’s own testimony during the trial that he raised his fee from $50 to $300 to help pay rent on his medical office.

Federal investigators discovered that Henson would give pain-med prescriptions to patients for $300 in cash at a time, with few questions asked. The investigation began in 2014 with a pharmacist’s concern that a doctor was over-prescribing controlled medications.

Prosecutors said Henson falsified patient records during the federal investigation in addition to obstructing investigators.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents showed Henson a search warrant before searching his home in August 15, but over an hour and a half into the search, the doctor called 911 to report an armed burglary. The ensuing police response “created a potentially deadly situation,” the judge said.

Henson was found guilty in October of two counts of conspiracy to distribute prescription drugs outside the course of medical practice; 13 counts of unlawfully distributing oxycodone; unlawfully distributing oxycodone, methadone and alprazolam; unlawfully distributing methadone and alprazolam, the use of which resulted in the death of a victim; presenting false patient records to investigators; obstruction of justice; and six counts of money laundering.

He was a doctor at Kansas Men’s Clinic at 3636 N. Ridge Road.

“Before you, he wouldn’t even take an aspirin for a headache,” Denise McGovern, Nick’s mother, said in a statement during sentencing. “... He was sent to you by his physician. You made him into an addict.”

Opioids are a growing problem in Kansas, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation has said. From 2012 to 2017, KBI labs saw a 615 percent increase in heroin samples being submitted and a 250 percent rise in fentanyl.

The National Association of Attorneys General has researched cases of doctors being criminally prosecuted for over-prescribing controlled substances. Cases had been resolved against 378 doctors by the end of 2016, their study found, including three from Kansas.

“The prosecution of cases involving a health professional’s misuse of medical expertise and authority is extremely important to fight the opioid epidemic,” McAllister said. “The vast majority of health care providers are people of integrity who follow their oath to help others, abide by the law, and do all they can to protect patients from becoming addicted. The evidence showed that is not what Dr. Henson did in this case.

“For any doctors, pharmacists or nurses who disregard their oath and distribute powerful drugs illegally to enrich themselves, the message today is that they will be prosecuted to the full extent allowed by federal law.”

Defense attorneys asked for a 20-year prison sentence, saying that Henson led a “model life” outside of this case.

“Maybe he wasn’t the best physician,” his attorney said. “He made some very serious mistakes. He wrote these prescriptions not out of greed, malice or ill intent. He was trying to help his patients. That was his goal.”

The judge said he had only met three or four people who he thought were “filled with evil and beyond redemption.”

“In some respects, what I’ve seen from you is worse, in that you don’t seem to understand,” Marten said. “I really don’t think that you get it. I think that in some respects you were numb to what you were doing over time. ... I just wonder if your practices have had any impact on you. It seems as if you’re still thinking, ‘Why am I here, what did I do wrong?’”

“You seem to be missing some kind of a piece to be able to tap in to other people’s feeling and sufferings.”

He said Henson’s lawyers “did a tremendous job of defending you in this trial, and they had a difficult job,” citing overwhelming evidence and Henson’s conduct.

“Dr. Henson, I think that you still think that you’re the smartest person in the room and you’d be in a position to sway a jury if they just listened to what you had to say,” Marten said.

The judge ordered Henson to forfeit his medical license, as well as about $20,000 in cash seized from Henson’s home, about $580,000 representing the proceeds of the crimes, multiple guns and an SUV. He also imposed a $2,325 special assessment to the crime victims fund, but no fine.

Henson’s bond was revoked and he was immediately taken into custody by U.S. marshals after emptying his pockets.

“No sentence will bring Nick back to us,” said his wife, Burgundy Castillo. “But if Steven Henson had treated Nick instead of enabling him, he would have still been with us today.”

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