Painkiller prescription prison sentence upheld for Kansas doctor and wife

WICHITA, Kan. -- A federal judge on Thursday upheld the decades-long prison sentences of a Kansas doctor and his wife who were convicted in a moneymaking conspiracy linked to 68 drug overdose deaths.

Dr. Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, had asked the judge for compassion as he reassessed their original sentences. Prosecutors said the case wasn't one that deserved compassion, noting that the couple's clinic that treated people with chronic pain was linked to dozens of deaths and many other addictions.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot sided with prosecutors by again sentencing the doctor to 30 years in prison and his wife to 33 years. The same punishment was imposed after the couple was convicted in 2010 of conspiracy to commit health care fraud resulting in deaths, unlawfully prescribing drugs, health care fraud and money laundering.

Five signs a loved one is abusing painkillers
Five signs a loved one is abusing painkillers

The judge ordered a new sentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a victim's drug use must be the actual cause of death, not just a contributing factor.

The doctor and his wife had argued that they helped people with chronic pain at their clinic in Haysville, even as the doctor saw up to 100 patients a day and left pads of pre-signed prescription forms for staff when he was out.

Their lawyers argued during a 2010 trial that they were overwhelmed and listened to drugmakers that pushed potent narcotics. The doctor is now 62, and his wife is 57.

Large spike in prescription painkiller overdoses

The Supreme Court ruled last year that a victim's drug use must be the actual cause of death to impose the harshest punishments under the federal Controlled Substances Act. In June, Belot threw out some sentences carrying the longest prison terms.

The Schneiders and their family had hoped the judge would lessen their sentences. But for others, the case remains a painful reminder that prescription drug abuse claims lives - including those of former patients of the Schneider clinic who died years after the couple was put behind bars.

Malpractice attorney Larry Wall said he has received about a half dozen calls from family members of addicts who have died since the clinic closed. "It's the people addicted that is the real damage he did," Wall said before the couple was re-sentenced.

New warning for women taking painkillers

"Unfortunately, little has changed since Dr. Schneider made headlines in Haysville," Wall said. "Local doctors still look the other way and do everything to protect bad doctors."

Deaths linked to addictive prescription painkillerssuch as Vicodin and OxyContin have reached an estimated 16,000 per year nationwide. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called on doctors to limit their use to the most severe pain such as cancer and end-of-life care.

At Indian Alcoholism Treatment Services, drug counselor Bobby Fulgroat Jr. often talks about his former girlfriend and longtime friend Mary Sue Ladomirak, who died in 2006 of an overdose. Her family sued the Schneiders' clinic, alleging the staff knew she was addicted to painkillers when she became a patient in 2003.

Fulgroat said he hopes telling her story during group sessions at the center where he works will demonstrate how addiction can happen to anybody.

Pat Hatcher, Linda Schneider's sister who prepared copies of medical records for patients after the clinic closed, still occasionally recognizes the name of a former patient when she reads the obituaries or gets a call about a death.

But Hatcher blames the deaths on patients' inability to find medical care because doctors are scared of facing of prosecution if they write them prescriptions.

Before the resentencing hearing, she said she hoped the judge would give the couple a second chance.