April 28, 2009 in City

Former physician sentenced to prison

Hindman pleaded guilty to drug charges
Meghann M. Cuniff Staff writer
 

Separate case headed to court

 A North Idaho doctor charged with overprescribing drugs that led to a patient’s overdose death is scheduled to go to trial next month. Christopher Arthur Christensen was indicted in January 2006 on charges that he’d prescribed a mixture of methadone and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam in February 2001 to a Mullan, Idaho, man who died after taking the drugs.

 Christensen is charged with 18 counts of dispensing and distributing controlled substances and one count of dispensing and distributing controlled substances causing death, according to federal court documents. The charges were the result of a six-year investigation by the Idaho State Police.

 Christensen now works in Victor, Mont. His trial is set to begin May 12 in front of U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge at the federal courthouse in Coeur d’Alene.

He spent more than 30 years as a doctor in Deer Park, working at the local hospital, giving student-athletes free physicals and getting to know families across town.

But Keith L. Hindman’s practice began to crumble three years ago during a federal investigation into his distribution of powerful pain pills to known drug addicts, including at least one who died of an overdose, court documents show.

Now the 69-year-old former Coast Guardsman is embarking on a nine-month prison sentence imposed Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley. Hindman will report to prison next month.

“A doctor doing what you did, it’s a serious crime,” Whaley said. “It’s an insidious thing to get a legal drug into the community illegally.”

The sentence came nearly two years after federal agents raided Hindman’s Foundation Medical Clinic in downtown Deer Park and accused him and his assistant, Steven Featherkile, of distributing controlled substances to drug addicts who abused or sold the prescriptions on the black market.

Featherkile is set to go to trial this fall on charges of health care fraud and prescribing drugs for nonmedical purposes.

Hindman pleaded guilty to one count of each in an agreement put together by defense lawyer Mark Vovos and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington and approved Monday by Whaley.

“We entrust in a doctor’s hands decisions that affect life and death,” Whaley said. “And we give them the license to do things that if anyone else does it, it’s a crime.”

Federal sentencing guidelines called for several years in prison, but Whaley noted Hindman’s age, health and “impeccable” record when imposing the light sentence.

Hindman lost his medical license permanently as part of the agreement. Whaley also imposed three years of probation and 240 hours of community service.

“The Lord’s will was done,” Hindman’s wife, Mary, said outside the courtroom. “I wanted something different, but the judge did a great job.”

Testimony from Hindman’s friends and Spokane psychologist Mark Mays painted Hindman as a good doctor who discovered chronic pain treatment late in his career and continued working despite deteriorating mental and physical health.

“It saddens me he’d be able to practice at this rate of impairment,” Mays told the court.

At least one patient, identified as B.B. in court papers, died of an overdose of various drugs prescribed by Hindman.

While Hindman was “far from being directly criminal responsible” for the deaths, he “was in a position to intervene and attempt to treat appropriately those patients,” Harrington wrote in court documents.

Hindman apologized in court and said he was “naive and misguided” when he prescribed heavy dosages of drugs such as OxyContin and methadone. Federal documents show he was recommending huge dosages of the drugs to patients who investigators say Hindman should have known were addicted and selling the drugs for profit.

Outside court, Vovos called the case “pretty emotional” and said Hindman had no reason to prescribe the drugs other than that he believed he was helping people in pain.

“I think he had some problems, and there’s explanations for them. It certainly wasn’t because he was getting rich,” Vovos said. “He didn’t make a dime.”

Investigators found a file labeled “informants” that included information on a patient who’d sold a prescription that ended up with a teenage girl. When the girl’s father found the bottle and called Hindman, Hindman put a note about the call in the informant file – not the patient file, Whaley said.

That file also contained an anonymous letter warning Hindman about a patient, identified in documents as F.P., who was seeking OxyContin “to get high,” Whaley said.

Hindman prescribed the drugs to F.P. anyway.

“I allowed my boundaries to be violated,” Hindman told the court. “I assumed what they were telling me was the truth, which was a mistake.”

Meghann M. Cuniff can be reached at (509) 459-5534 or at meghannc@spokesman.com.


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