Drug program leaves questions
M. ALEXANDER OTTO; The News Tribune
Pierce County Alliance officials on Wednesday responded to criticism of a controversial, expensive drug treatment called Prometa, after an audit released Tuesday found no evidence the treatment works.
The County Council cut off funding Tuesday for Prometa, a mix of three generic drugs given over the course of five weeks, until the alliance can produce sound scientific evidence that it works.
The council’s audit committee met Wednesday to hear the auditors’ report, and to hear alliance leaders’ testimony.
The alliance’s executive director, Terree Schmidt-Whelan, told the committee, “We clearly heard the vote” Tuesday, and that her group will not be seeking more money for Prometa until such evidence is produced.
She said data will be available during the next few weeks that compares Prometa to other options. She didn’t say whether the data would be produced by the company that owns the rights to Prometa, Hythiam Inc. of Santa Monica, Calif., or by independent scientists.
Schmidt-Whelan told The News Tribune that she owns stock in Hythiam. She also signed a contract with Hythiam in summer 2006 that requires her organization to promote Prometa, which is used mostly for meth and cocaine addicts.
Committee members did not ask Schmidt-Whelan about her financial stake in Hythiam or press for details of the contract.
But the chairman of the alliance’s board, Tom Leander, defended Schmidt-Whelan, saying “there’s nothing wrong with owning stock.” He also said later the board was aware of the details of the contract. Leander also told the committee he was concerned that the 18-percent drop in Hythiam’s stock price after the audit was reported Wednesday morning in The News Tribune could make it harder for people to have access to Prometa.
Others from the alliance contended there were mistakes in the audit. The committee gave them 30 days to produce evidence that the report was wrong in any of its findings.
The alliance, a nonprofit agency, contracts with the county to provide treatment services in lieu of jail time to people arrested for drug crimes, as well as treatment to addicts hoping to win back custody of their children from the state.
It has billed the county $225,000 for Prometa since the County Council voted in April, based in part on Schmidt-Whelan’s lobbying efforts, to set aside $400,000 for the program.
The council’s vote Tuesday cut off access to the rest of the money, except for five clients currently being treated.
Besides billing the county $5,000 per drug court client, the alliance offers Prometa to the public at $15,000 per patient.
Deputy alliance director Jim Boyle said Monday that his organization has treated about three self-pay patients, but the audit found 50 had been treated, for a total cost of $750,000.
The alliance splits such proceeds 50-50 with Hythiam, according to Schmidt-Whelan.
Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney, a committee member, asked alliance officials about the differences between what Schmidt-Whelan and the alliance said last spring, when they were seeking funding, and the results found by auditors.
Bunney drafted the amendment Tuesday that cut off county funding for Prometa after obtaining a copy of the audit report.
Bunney said Wednesday that the County Council heard “this is a miracle” but the audit found “no discernible differences” in meth addicts treated with Prometa versus those that got standard treatments at the alliance, such as counseling.
For instance, in a news release to investors and others, the alliance and Hythiam reported 86 percent of meth addicts treated with Prometa were drug free at 14 months, but auditors found the number was 50 percent.
“Can you discern if Prometa (had) higher success rates than traditional treatment?” Bunney asked county performance audit coordinator Matt Temmel, who authored the report along with research analyst Bill Vetter.
“Sorry, we can’t,” Temmel said.
Bunney said he was concerned with the liability the county could face if a person in county drug court treatment is hurt using Prometa, which has not been tested for safety.
Auditors said it’s unclear what risks the county would face in that situation. “We all know we are the deep pockets,” if something goes wrong, Bunney said.
The audit failed to find evidence that Prometa repairs damaged brain receptors, as claimed by Hythiam, leading to decreased drug cravings.
Committee member Skip Stansbury said he was skeptical of many of the audit findings.
Stansbury is County Executive John Ladenburg’s executive assistant. Ladenburg held about $900 in stock in Hythiam last spring when he was seeking public funding for Prometa, but has recently sold his shares.
“Are you saying Hythiam has an incentive to falsify results?” Stansbury asked Vetter.
“Hythiam has an incentive to make money for its stock holders,” Vetter said.
Hythiam has raised more than $300 million from Wall Street investors and others, in part due to promotion of its success in Pierce County.
Read the audit
Go to www.co.pierce.wa.us
. Type “peformance audit” in the search box. Click “Pierce County Peformance Audits” on the page that comes up. Next, click “Prometa Drug Treatment Protocol.”
M. Alexander Otto: 253-597-8616