Doctor Sentenced to Life After Patient’s Opioid Death

A doctor who illegally distributed prescription opioids has been sentenced to life in prison after one of his patients died of an overdose.

Wichita Federal Court sentenced Steve Henson, 57, for the death of 32-year-old Nick McGovern, among a number of other crimes. McGovern died in 2015 of an overdose after Henson overprescribed alprazolam and methadone.

“I want this case to send a message to physicians and the health care community,” U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a statement obtained by The Wichita Eagle. “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,” he added. “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.”

Federal investigators began probing Henson after a pharmacist reported to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that he was overprescribing controlled pain medications. McGovern’s overdose occurred during the course of the investigation, The Wichita Eagle reported.

“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,” said McAllister.

The investigation found that Henson would expediently prescribe pain medications to people he didn’t know and without much discussion, nor with any paperwork to get background information on patients.

In some instances pharmacies refused to fill the frequent pain prescription requests, so patients would sometimes travel long distances in search of pharmacies that would fulfill pain prescriptions from Hensen.

Investigators found pills prescribed by Hensen getting resold on the streets. Hensen would take cash for medical prescriptions. One patient described how after he gave some of the medications to his brother to sell, it wasn’t easy “because Henson has so many patients that there were just too many pills on the street in Wichita,” said a court document obtained by The Wichita Eagle.

Court documents also said Hensen carried a handgun during patient visits “because of the clientele he deals with.” An informant also revealed Hensen would drink hard liquor during visits to his office.

“The prosecution of cases involving a health professional’s misuse of medical expertise and authority is extremely important to fight the opioid epidemic,” McAllister told the Eagle. “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.”

A pharmacist that was alarmed by the number of pain prescriptions from patients of Hensen told investigators “she did not feel comfortable filling his prescriptions.” When she called Hensen to verify a prescription, she said he did something no other doctor had ever done with her before: Hensen appeared in person at the pharmacy to justify the prescription.

Despite Hensen’s attorneys telling the judge that their client did not issue the drugs with ill intent, the judge believed none of it.

“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.”

Judge J. Thomas Marten addressed Hensen directly during court.

“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,” said Marten. “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.”

Marten commented further.

“Dr. Henson, I think that you still think that you’re the smartest person in the room and you’d be in a position to sway a jury if they just listened to what you had to say.”

McGovern’s family expressed sadness about the loss of their loved one and blamed Hensen for turning McGovern into a drug addict.

“Before you, he wouldn’t even take an aspirin for a headache,” Denise McGovern, Nick’s mother, told Hensen during sentencing, The Wichita Eagle reported. “He was sent to you by his physician. You made him into an addict.”

Start of the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic started in the late 1990s, after pharmaceutical companies pushed the idea that opioid pain medication was not addictive, so healthcare providers started to write more such prescriptions, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Increased opioid acceptance led to its abuse both through prescriptions and illicitly obtained means. Data on the HHS website shows 11.4 million people have misused prescription opioids, and over 130 people per day die from opioid overdoses.