Pain doc gets 10 years in prison


HAMILTON (AP) — A western Montana pain doctor was sentenced Friday to 20 years in prison with 10 suspended for overprescribing pain medication, leading to death and addiction among his patients.

District Judge Jeffrey Langton sentenced Chris Christensen of Florence for two counts of negligent homicide in the deaths of two patients, nine counts of criminal endangerment involving other patients and 11 counts of drug distribution, the Ravalli Republic reported.

However, Langton released Christensen on an earlier posted $200,000 bond pending the appeal of his convictions, over the protests of Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright. "We are asking that there be now more delays and an execution of justice in the case," he said.

Christensen's clinic was raided in 2014, he was first charged in 2015 and the case didn't go to trial until late last year, in part due to Christensen's delays in hiring an attorney.

Langton said he did not believe Christensen was a flight risk and that he was not a danger to the public because his license to practice medicine was suspended.

Christensen's attorney, Josh Van de Wetering, said he expected to file the appeal within the next two few months and suggested it could take a year or more for the Montana Supreme Court to review the case.

During the trial, prosecutors alleged Christensen overprescribed opiates and other drugs in dangerous combinations and should have known he was putting patients at risk because five of his patients in Idaho died and six others were hospitalized in the 1990's because of overdoses. He was not convicted in Idaho, but he voluntarily gave up his medical license for two years.

Van de Wetering argued at trial that Christensen was a compassionate physician who prescribed the drugs to ease his patients' suffering.

During the sentencing hearing, Van de Wetering said he believed Christensen and others who prescribe opioids are being caught up in a national hysteria over opioid abuse.

"We have vilified people, making them seem like some kind of criminal for taking pain medication," Van de Wetering said. "I firmly believe we will look back at this as a time of hysteria over opioid prescribing and the vilification of people who prescribe them and the vilification of opioids themselves."

He sought a probationary sentence, arguing it would be unjust to send a 69-year-old man to prison after he spent a lifetime caring for people.

Christensen "deeply regrets" the overdose deaths of Greg Griffin and Kara Philbrick-Lenker and the other patients' addictions, Van de Wetering said, but he does not believe he's guilty of the charges.

About 50 people wrote letters to the judge seeking leniency for Christensen, but Fulbright argued he was a "callous, arrogant narcissist" who "put a loaded gun in the victims' hands."