Kan. doctor tied to 68 overdose deaths takes witness stand, says he didn't mean to cause harm

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas physician whose clinic is linked to 68 overdose deaths testified Wednesday at his trial that he never intentionally gave anyone medication he believed would cause them harm.

Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, are charged in a 34-count indictment with unlawfully prescribing drugs, health care fraud and money laundering. Four of the counts directly charge them with providing illegal prescriptions leading to 21 deaths. If convicted, they face up to life in prison.

For nearly five weeks, government witnesses have tried to paint Schneider as street drug dealer interested only in making money. On Wednesday, the defense opened its case by putting the doctor on the stand in an effort to portray him as a caring physician who took in low-paying Medicaid patients no one else wanted to treat.

Defense attorney Lawrence Williamson noted he would challenge whether those patients actually died of overdoses, but questioned the doctor about how he felt as the government presented testimony about those deaths.

"It is very sad, very sad for anybody to lose their life," Schneider said. "I really feel if I had any opportunity I could have saved their life, and missed it, I regret that. ... I would never have written them another prescription if I thought it was going to hurt them."

In a dramatic recreation played out for jurors, Williamson played the part of a mock patient complaining of shoulder pain while Schneider — with a stethoscope draped over across his neck — demonstrated a typical office visit and the progress note it generated. The doctor checked heart and lungs, peered into his ears, checked range of motion and took down medical history and complaints.

The mock courtroom exchange — which took 10 minutes and 18 seconds — was a move to deflect government allegations that practitioners could not do a thorough examination during the 10 minutes scheduled between patients despite previous testimony that an average office visit nationwide lasts seven minutes. Schneider testified he took more time with patients if needed.

Schneider recounted the "traumatic" first raid on Sept. 15, 2005, when he found his clinic surrounded by law enforcement officers when he arrived. He acknowledged he told agents at the time that he left pre-signed prescription pads for his physician assistants, saying he didn't know then it was inappropriate.

Asked by his attorney why he didn't kick out his pain patients when he learned he was under investigation, the doctor replied, "If I were smart, I probably should have done that. I was concerned about our patients. ... I really didn't feel these patients had any place else they could go. When patients came in, we just couldn't say 'no' to them."

Williamson also tried to counter government allegations the doctor tried to make money by churning patients through the clinic, saying it had 10,000 patients in part because it was one of the few clinics willing to take Medicaid patients. Schneider testified the clinic was reimbursed just $15-$20 for Medicaid patients for what otherwise would have been a $65 office visit.

"The government wants the jury to believe for $15-$20 a person you were willing risk your livelihood, your life?" Williamson asked. Schneider replied, "I guess so."

The doctor testified that if he had just been interested in money, he would have stopped treated Medicaid patients and focused on patients with better-paying insurance. He said he asked other area physicians to take on some of his Medicaid patients at a 2005 medical conference in Wichita, but they declined.

During the afternoon, Schneider went through the medical records of three of the patients in whose deaths he is charged, explaining visit-by-visit his treatment decisions. He denied earlier testimony from other witnesses that he referred to patients who died of overdoses as "bad grapes" and that he and his wife conspired to make money as drug pushers. He told jurors his wife, who is a nurse, handled employee issues and did not oversee clinical care.

Schneider's testimony came on the day his Haysville clinic, seized earlier by the government, was put up for auction.