Haysville, Kansas, physician Dr. Stephen Schneider and his nurse wife, Linda Schneider, were arrested on a 34-count federal indictment last month for allegedly improperly prescribing opioid pain medications and causing the deaths of at least four patients. The Schneiders are only the latest pain management health care providers to fall victim to the federal government's war against prescription drug abuse and diversion, and now a leading pain relief advocacy group is vowing to take the government to court to block further harassment of physicians and the pain-ridden patients who rely on them.
Last Friday, the Pain Relief Network announced it will seek a civil injunction barring the Justice Department from prosecuting the Schneiders. But the lawsuit could have much broader implications than the couple's freedom. It will argue that the way the federal Controlled Substances Act is applied to doctors and patients is unconstitutional.
"I want a judge to take a look at this and see if the United States has authority to prosecute," Pain Relief Network head Siobhan Reynolds said during a press briefing last Friday. Reynolds cited a ruling in a similar case that such prosecutions give the government unrestrained power to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.
The real victims of the government's crackdown on the Schneiders and other health care professionals prescribing opioid pain medications are patients, said Reynolds. "These patients are in real harm's way," Reynolds said. "They are being attacked by the Department of Justice."
While some of Dr. Schneider's former patients have filed malpractice lawsuits claiming they became addicted because of his prescribing, other patients said he had been a godsend and that they are suffering now without him.
One was Jamie McGuire, 49, who had been receiving pain meds for severe arthritis in his spine, hips, and shoulders resulting from an auto accident. Since Schneider was jailed, he has been unable to even get a referral to another doctor. "I think they railroaded him," he said of the prosecution. McGuire told reporters he is almost out of pain medication and his situation is dire. "If they don't do something, I will take myself out," McGuire said.
Another patient, Martin Beatty, 46, also showed up to support his doctor. He said he opted for a regime of pain meds rather than surgery or steroids after falling from a roof 12 years ago and had been a patient of Schneider's for three years. He admitted being dependent on his pain meds, but said that shouldn't matter. "Addiction doesn't mean I am going to be a bad person," Beatty said. Now he worries about going through withdrawal without being under a physician's care.
This week, patients and advocates continued to fight for Dr. Schneider, who, along with his wife, remains jailed. They gathered at his offices to show support and sign petitions, one to join the federal lawsuit, the other to keep the Kansas Board of Healing Arts from moving to suspend his license. According to Reynolds, the clinic will be forced to close because the physician assistants now writing prescriptions are doing so under the auspices of working for a clinic owned by a licensed physician. Other doctors who once practiced at the clinic have been run off by fears of federal prosecution, she said.
"Right now we are calling on the medical board to refrain from joining in this attack on this clinic. This clinic has been hobbled by the Justice Department. These patients are living in mortal fear," Reynolds said.