‘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…’
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 last week. “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 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,” McGovern’s stepdaughter, Tatiana Lujano, said at the sentencing.
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.”
But the judge cited Henson’s testimony during the trial that he raised his fee from $50 to $300 to help pay rent on his medical office.
Federal investigators found that Henson would give pain-med prescriptions to patients for $300 in cash at a time, with few questions asked.
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, but more than 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.
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.
“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.”
©2019 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.