WICHITA, Kan. — A Kansas doctor was sentenced to life in prison Friday for unlawfully prescribing medication blamed for an overdose death, the latest prosecution in a government crackdown on physicians amid an opioid epidemic.
Steven R. Henson, 57, was immediately taken into custody following sentencing. There was an audible gasp in the packed courtroom when U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten pronounced the life sentence. Henson showed no emotion.
A federal jury convicted the Wichita doctor for the 2015 death of Nick McGovern. Prosecutors alleged McGovern, who received prescriptions from Henson, died of an overdose of the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam and methadone, which is used to wean addicts off heroin.
The government presented evidence at trial that Henson wrote prescriptions in return for cash, postdated prescriptions and wrote them without a medical need or legitimate medical exam. Prosecutors said the doctor prescribed opioid medications in amounts likely to lead to addiction.
He also was convicted of conspiracy to distribute prescription drugs outside the course of medical practice, unlawfully distributing various prescription drugs, presenting false patient records to investigators, obstruction of justice and money laundering.
His case is the latest in a string of prosecutions across the nation targeting physicians accused of overprescribing opioids.
"I want this case to send a message to physicians and the health care community," U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a news release. "Unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances is a federal crime."
The National Association of Attorneys General, working under a research grant, found there had been 378 doctors who had been charged or whose cases were resolved by the end of 2016. Of those, U.S. attorneys' offices charged 249 and state authorities charged 131, its researchers found.
Defense attorney Michael Thompson said his client was disappointed in the sentence and planned to appeal.
"When acting as a physician he always acted with the best interest of patients," Thompson said.
His attorneys had urged the court to impose the lowest possible sentence, arguing McGovern had ingested far more pills than prescribed on the day he died and had taken other drugs that were not prescribed. They contended Henson did not write a prescription that would have resulted in the death if taken as directed.
In a brief courtroom statement, Henson said he trained hard to become a physician.
"I only had one goal in life as a physician and that is to take excellent care of patients and increase functionality," he said.
But the judge was unmoved by that statement, telling Henson he put his patient in a position where he had to take those pills in order to get through the day.
"You were exacerbating a problem; you were not treating it," Marten said.
Several tearful members of the McGovern's family spoke in court of the impact the death has had on them, telling the court the family deserves to see justice served so this example won't ever happen to another family.
Some 47,600 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2017, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid deaths were 13 percent higher compared to 2016, up a notch compared to the nearly 500 percent increase in overdose deaths since 1999. The street drug fentanyl is the top overdose killer now, displacing heroin and pain pills. Prescription painkillers contributed to 14,495 deaths in 2017.