Doc denied bond in pill mill case

By Katherine Wartell

The Manhattan physician accused of running a pill mill is being held without bond pending a detention hearing next Tuesday when the judge will determine whether he is a flight-risk. If so, Michael Schuster could be kept in custody until his trial.

Schuster, 53, made his first appearance in federal court Wednesday in Wichita. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to illegally distribute controlled substances. Court papers indicate he could be linked to several overdoses, including those of Fort Riley soldiers and their families.

In court Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Humphreys granted the prosecution’s request that Schuster be temporarily detained without bond until next week’s detention hearing.

Federal prosecutors said Schuster has financial resources of more than $1 million outside the U.S., a home in Paraguay and two passports, making him a serious flight-risk.

Schuster was arrested at the Manhattan Regional Airport Tuesday afternoon without incident, Bridget Patton, an FBI spokeswoman, confirmed that Schuster was at the airport, but would not comment on why authorities believe he was there.

Schuster, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday, operates Manhattan Pain and Spine, 1135 Westport Dr. He is the only physician employed at the office and the only person authorized to prescribe drugs, officials said.

According to the criminal complaint against him, Schuster authorized unlicensed staff members to distribute painkillers and antidepressants to 542 patients, using blank prescriptions with his signature.

In a 14-page affidavit, an FBI agent investigating the case writes that the investigation began in 2012 after the Riley County Police Department informed the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI that Schuster was issuing prescriptions for high dosages, based on minimal and cursory physical examinations. As a result, the agent wrote, several patients had overdosed on their prescription medication and the department was dealing with diversions; that is, patients selling their medications on the street.

He also wrote that Fort Riley Army Post physicians and hospital staff voiced concerns to Army Criminal Investigative Division investigators about several overdose deaths of active-duty soldiers and family members who were patients of Schuster.

According to the complaint, Schuster was out of the office—reportedly on trips to countries including Russia, South Africa, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Israel—when the patients received the prescriptions.

Between April 2007 and August 2012, the agent wrote, Schuster was reportedly out of the office more than 200 days, during which time 496 prescriptions for oxycodone, commonly known as Oxycontin, were issued, while 186 for morphine and 178 for hydromorphone were issued, among other controlled substances. 

In the affidavit, the agent wrote that a pharmacist filed a complaint with the Kansas Board of Pharmacy in 2012 after calling the office inquiring about prescriptions supposedly signed by Schuster and being told by staff that he was out of the country.

After review, the board faxed Manhattan pharmacists telling them not to fill prescriptions by Schuster’s office as he was out of the country.

The agent also alleges that one patient became dependent on the prescriptions and was able to get them filled without ever seeing Schuster. The assertion was made that even when the patient was examined by the doctor and obviously “out of it,” Schuster would still prescribe more drugs.

The agent wrote in the affidavit that a former employee of the clinic reported it was common practice for staff members to carry blank, pre-signed prescription pads.

Schuster, previously known as Mikhail Pavlovich Shusterov, is a 1982 graduate of Stavropol State Medical Academy in Russia. In March 2004, he moved from the New Jersey/New York area to accept a position at Mercy Regional Health Center, eventually opening his own practice.

He is licensed by the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts to practice medicine and surgery in Kansas. He specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, with a subspecialty in pain management.

If convicted, Schuster faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a fine up to $1 million. But officials said if death or bodily injury are found to have resulted from the crime, the penalty will not be less than 20 years.

Officials could not comment on whether staff members are also liable for the charges, stating that is not yet of public record.

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