In this Feb. 22, 2016 photo, Amy Bottoms holds her daughter Allison Centennial’s hand as Dr. Bodo Schneider takes notes during their appointment at the Pied Pfeifer Compassionate Care in Orland Park, Ill. Centennial hopes to get relief from her daily epileptic seizures and migraines using medical marijuana and received her state registry identification card a few days earlier. Schneider said he has certified almost 2,000 patients for Illinois’ marijuana program since opening his two clinics in 2013. (Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT, less

ORLAND PARK, Ill. (AP) — Participation in Illinois’ medical marijuana program has been tepid, advocates say, amid widespread reluctance by doctors to embrace cannabis as an alternative to prescription drugs for relief of pain and other chronic disease symptoms.

But a doctor who got his start at Springfield’s Southern Illinois University School of Medicine — an institution that now prohibits doctors it employs from helping patients get into the program — is responsible for nearly half of the 4,400 patients enrolled in the state’s pilot program.

Dr. Bodo Schneider, a native of Steeleville and 1981 graduate of the medical school, said he has certified almost 2,000 patients for Illinois’ marijuana program since opening his Pied Pfeifer Compassionate Care clinics in 2013 in downstate Marion and in the suburban Chicago village of Orland Park.

That number, according to Schneider, includes a “couple dozen” patients from the Springfield area, and it’s more than any other Illinois doctor has served, by far. Many of his patients sought him after being turned down by their local doctors for the required signatures.

Schneider is facing a 2015 complaint from the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation for his care of marijuana patients. Depending on the outcome, he could be simply reprimanded or barred from practicing.

“This program would not even see the suggestion of success had we not been open,” Schneider, 59, told The State Journal-Register last week during an interview at his Orland Park clinic. “I’m a big target.”

Among other things, the complaint, which is scheduled for a June 30 hearing in Chicago, says Schneider charged patients fees without conducting physical examinations and without establishing “a legitimate physician-patient relationship.”

Schneider denied any wrongdoing and said he requires multiple visits within a 90-day period, as well as checkups at least every six months, to establish and maintain what the state requires as a “bona-fide physician-patient relationship.”

Schneider, who previously worked in hospital emergency rooms in several states, faced disciplinary action in the 2000s in Illinois, Florida and Virginia, all connected with a 1998 case that alleged he failed to treat a diabetic patient at the Jefferson County (Illinois) Jail in a timely fashion. The patient died, and Schneider was reprimanded by the state but allowed to continue practicing.

His license was revoked in Florida when he failed to pay a $5,000 fine to Florida in connection with the Illinois case. Schneider said he was going through a bankruptcy at the time and couldn’t afford to pay the fine. He said he was surprised by the decision to revoke.

Schneider said the current complaint in Illinois amounts to an “attempt at intimidation” by the current governor.

Gov. Bruce Rauner allowed cultivation centers and dispensaries to open after his Democratic predecessor, Pat Quinn, worked with the General Assembly to create the medical marijuana program in 2013.

But Schneider said he believes Rauner is directing Professional Regulation to harass him because the Republican governor wants the program to fail. The pilot program will expire at the end of 2017 unless Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly extend it.

Professional Regulation spokesman Terry Horstman denied any bias against Schneider.

The agency, Horstman said, “takes all allegations of wrongdoing seriously. The department is treating this case like every other case we prosecute, based on the facts and the merits.”

Divorced three times and now single with four teenage and adult children, Schneider said he lives with his mother in Steeleville and splits his time between his clinics in Illinois and another clinic he operates in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All of the clinics focus on medical marijuana patients.

Schneider, the son of a doctor, said he smoked marijuana recreationally one time, while an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It wasn’t anything special,” he said, adding that he went on to graduate from the university in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

He said his education at SIU School of Medicine played a part in his current philosophy on marijuana.

“SIU’s philosophy toward narcotic medicines has always been one of skepticism: ‘Try to avoid them at all costs and be stingy with them,'” Schneider said.

But at that time, he said he didn’t know of any non-narcotic medicines that were good long-term alternatives.

“I was very much anti-marijuana until six years ago,” he said, noting that he used to think of cannabis as a “gateway drug” to other drugs, with only negative effects for users.

Indeed, marijuana remains classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin, peyote and LSD, with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Schneider practiced as an emergency room doctor for 35 years — working part time in Memorial Medical Center‘s emergency department from 1992 to 2008.

Schneider, who now considers himself a “general practitioner,” said he began treating prospective medical marijuana patients in Michigan six years ago after researching evidence on the effectiveness of cannabis.

“I was looking for a transition out of doing ER medicine to where I would not have to be up at nighttime and not have people throwing up on my shoes and all that fun stuff,” he said.

His research, combined with anecdotal accounts from his marijuana patients, convinced him to expand his work to Illinois.

“I asked patients what medical marijuana had done for them,” he said. “A great majority are using it for pain relief, and it’s a very different pain relief.”

Schneider, who has attended in-person and online training on medical cannabis through medical schools in California and Massachusetts, said marijuana has enabled more than 200 of his patients in Michigan and 10 of his patients in Illinois so far to get off powerful narcotics.

“They’re coming alive,” he said. “They’re losing their fog. They feel more awake. They’re sleeping better.”

Medical marijuana advocates in Illinois have said the current Schedule 1 classification of marijuana, and lack of knowledge about the substance, are reasons so few doctors have agreed to sign state forms certifying that their patients have one of the approximately 40 conditions qualifying them for the Illinois program.

Doctors worry — unnecessarily so, advocates say — that their federally granted prescription-writing ability will be taken away.

Doctors, who don’t technically prescribe marijuana but are gatekeepers for the program, must attest to the state that the potential benefits “would likely outweigh the health risks” for patients before those patients can be enrolled.

Schneider writes prescriptions for narcotics and other traditional medicines for his patients and isn’t worried his marijuana certification work will get him in trouble with the feds.

He agreed that most doctors don’t know much about medical marijuana.

“That’s mainly because they have not tried to find out,” he said, adding that he probably has more medical knowledge about marijuana than any other doctor in the state.

“The information is out there,” he said. “It would take one evening of going to continuing education websites.”

Schneider said his patients come to him for relief, not for a recreational high.

“I think it’s better medicine for them long term,” he said. “It doesn’t have any side effects of significance . and you can’t overdose on it. It actually gives better pain relief than narcotics do, and in a way that patients are more functional and not sedated.”

He acknowledged that not a lot is known about proper dosages and ways marijuana may conflict with conventional medicines, but guidance is being developed, and lack of those details shouldn’t dissuade doctors, he said.

Schneider charges patients $80 to join his practice and have an initial visit with an office assistant; $180 for the next visit, which is with him; and $45 for every follow-up visit. He doesn’t consider signing certification forms until the third visit.

He requires his charges to be paid by cash, check or credit card. He said he can’t afford software and personnel to handle billing Medicaid or insurance companies, though he said patients can submit receipts to health insurance companies.

His offices’ charges, based on the 2,500 total patients visiting his two Illinois offices, could total more than $500,000. But Schneider pointed out that those revenues would cover more than two years and help pay for personnel, overhead, as well as his travel, hotel bills and food.

He said he can’t afford to pay himself a salary yet but hopes the practices grow so he can expand and add more sites. He said he also hopes more doctors warm up to medical marijuana.

“I would think from the standpoint of bettering the care of their patients, getting them off of narcotics would be a boon to their practice,” he said. “You can overdose a patient with one prescription.”

The most common conditions that qualify his patients for the marijuana program are fibromyalgia, cancer, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis, Schneider said. He said he has seen patients’ abdominal cramps and other problems from Crohn’s disease alleviated after they smoked marijuana, though he added there isn’t conclusive evidence yet that cannabis use leads to those benefits.

Several patients and their families visiting Schneider’s Orland Park office said he has been a godsend for them.

Amy Bottoms, 37, who lives in Newark, near Morris, with her 15-year-old daughter, Allison Centennial, said Allison recently was accepted into the marijuana pilot program with Schneider’s help. Allison has epilepsy.

Bottoms said several of Allison’s medical specialists refused to sign certification documents for the program as part of the family’s quest for the cannabis oil that may relieve Allison’s seizures and other symptoms.

Bottoms, a single mother who said she isn’t able to work because of the time needed to care for her daughter, now doesn’t know whether she can afford the hundreds of dollars per month it may cost for cannabis that Allison would inhale or swallow.

Kristy Stirling, 58, a Bradley resident and former customer service representative with multiple sclerosis, said she came to Schneider to qualify for medical marijuana because she didn’t want to put her regular doctors in the potentially awkward situation of asking them to sign the state’s documents.

“He seems like a pretty cool guy,” Stirling said of Schneider. “There’s no nonsense with him.”

Stirling said she wants to be able to smoke marijuana legally.

“It takes away my pain immediately,” she said.

Stirling said she doesn’t understand the stigma surrounding medical marijuana.

“It’s done so much good for so many people,” she said.

Several large medical organizations around the state, including SIU HealthCare and Memorial Health System in Springfield, have ordered their doctors not to certify patients for the marijuana program.

SIU and Memorial both cited cannabis’ status as a Schedule 1 illegal drug as the reason for their decisions.

Springfield Clinic, as well as Hospital Sisters Health System, which operates HSHS St. John’s Hospital and HSHS Medical Group, both allow their doctors to certify. But only about a dozen doctors in the community are doing so, and only on a limited basis, according to Jay Cook, director of education and community outreach for HCI Alternatives, Springfield’s lone dispensary. Sangamon County is home to more than 900 doctors.

More Illinois doctors may become open to medical marijuana, and more specialty clinics like Schneider’s may form, as demand from patients continues and doctors learn more about cannabis, said Dr. Scott Cooper, president of the Illinois State Medical Society.

“There’s a learning curve for anything,” said Cooper, an emergency medicine specialist in Lake County.

The state medical society hasn’t taken a stand on medical marijuana.

Officials at the Sangamon County Medical Society declined to comment for this story.

Complaints against doctors such as Schneider, who appears to have been singled out for his large number of medical marijuana patients, make other physicians leery about certifying patients, said Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

On the other hand, Anita Bedell, executive director of the anti-marijuana group Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, said the lack of support from doctors should be a “red flag” for patients considering medical cannabis. A total of 1,175 doctors statewide had certified patients for the program as of June 30, state officials said.

“There are so many unknowns” about marijuana, Bedell said. “That’s the problem.”

Schneider said some critics have called him the “pot doctor,” a label he rejects.

“My job here isn’t to prescribe it,” he said. “My job is to give patients access to it.”

He believes Illinois needs to increase the number of conditions that qualify patients for marijuana and ease some other restrictions.

Even though his services in Illinois aren’t lucrative, he said the health benefits from cannabis that he has observed give him satisfaction.

“This is the most exciting thing that I’ve done in my entire career in terms of results,” he said. “These people are so grateful. It gives me rewards that are not monetary. . Medicine isn’t about another pill. It’s about wellness and getting the maximum amount out of life.”

 

SOURCES: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register
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