Federal prosecutor says doctor ignored signs of deadly practices in Kansas 'pill mill' case

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A federal prosecutor derided a Kansas clinic linked to 68 deaths as "Burger King for pain pill addicts" Tuesday, while defense attorneys portrayed the clinic's owners as compassionate health care providers who treated chronic pain patients turned away by other doctors.

Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, are charged with conspiracy, unlawfully prescribing drugs, health care fraud and money laundering at their Haysville clinic. The couple is directly charged in 21 of the deaths. Jury deliberations in their trial begin Wednesday.

The high number of patient deaths at the clinic should have alerted the Schneiders that their policies, practices and prescriptions were deadly, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway told jurors during her closing arguments.

Treadway said evidence presented during the eight-week trial told "a sordid tale of how money, not medicine" controlled the defendants' actions. She said the Schneiders cheated people out of life.

Defense attorneys have argued it is impossible to know for sure whether the patients died from overdoses or other serious cardiac problems because the local medical examiner, at the time, did not do internal examinations whenever a toxicology report showed high drug levels.

Attorney Lawrence Williamson told jurors the prosecution inflated the number of deaths in the case by adding patients who died while the Schneiders were in prison, patients who committed suicide and patients the doctor had either never seen or seen months earlier.

"This is not a fraudulent person. This is not a drug dealer," Williamson said. "This is a man who cared about his patients."

Linda Schneider's attorney, Kevin Byers, called the prosecution's case disgusting.

"This case is doctored up to look like much more like a huge rolling death machine and the evidence isn't there to show that," Byers said.

Treadway, the prosecutor, recounted patients' testimony that Schneider was known as a "drug dealer in a white coat" or "Schneider the Writer." Another called the Schneider Medical Clinic "the Burger King for pain pill addicts."

Treadway said the clinic wrote prescriptions 76 times for patients after they had gone to hospital emergency rooms for overdoses. In 46 of those instances, the prescriptions provided the same drugs the patients had overdosed on.

The government has attributed 176 overdoses and deaths to the Haysville clinic, noting 18 percent of drug overdose deaths in a multi-county area were its patients.

"If this clinic was a legitimate pain management practice ... the defendants would have taken action in the face of these overdoses and deaths," Treadway said.

But the clinic took no action, she said, noting the doctor once reportedly called the people who died of overdoses "bad grapes," which the doctor denied during his testimony.

Government and private insurance programs paid more than $6 million for controlled drugs prescribed by the clinic, losses the programs should not have paid, she said.

Among those drugs he should not have filed for was the potent, highly addictive drug Actiq, which is approved only for terminal cancer patients. The Schneiders indiscriminately prescribed Actiq to 37 individuals without a legitimate medical purpose, Treadway said.

Defense attorneys called Schneider a caring physician duped by some patients who faked their pain. He referred some patients for whose deaths he is charged for further diagnostic testing and surgeries.

"At the very end of the day Dr. Schneider was being a doctor. He never submitted anything fraudulent and he never instructed anybody to do anything fraudulent," Williamson said.

Treadway told jurors the prosecution experts were professional, credible and gave detailed explanations to help them decide their case. She portrayed defense experts as untruthful hired guns paid a hefty price tag for their testimony.

"It wasn't a battle, it wasn't even a skirmish, it was more of a smackdown by the government's witnesses," she said.

Byers suggested the government would only target somebody treating poor people with high-priced medications if the case were pushed by insurance companies trying to save money.

"If there is an acquittal from this trial, we all win," Byers said.