The record of success is uneven. The stock price is sinking in a morass of government scrutiny and media skepticism. The hype machine is running on fumes.
It’s been a rocky two months for Prometa, the anti- addiction treatment regimen hailed by some as a life-changer, scoffed at by others who doubt its reputed virtues.
The slide started Oct. 24, when Pierce County auditors released a report debunking Prometa’s claimed effectiveness in the local drug court. Members of the Pierce County Council later voted to cut county funding for the program, though it’s still backed by state funding.
In the aftermath, Hythiam Inc., Prometa’s parent company in Santa Monica, Calif., endured tough local and national media coverage, capped by a Dec. 7 report on the “60 Minutes” television news program.
Hythiam stock is sucking air in the fallout. It’s lost almost two-thirds of its value in eight weeks. On Oct. 23, it was trading for $8.56 a share. Friday, it struggled to stay above $3.
For Terren Peizer, Hythiam’s chairman and CEO, who owns about 13.7 million shares of company stock, that represents a loss of more than $75 million.
NO COMMENT FROM HYTHIAM
The first quarter of 2008 could be Prometa’s make-or-break moment. Results from several studies of the treatment are due to arrive, including a preliminary evaluation by the University of Washington, which is studying Pierce County’s Prometa program.
The News Tribune took a closer look at Prometa’s performance in drug courts around the country, seeking records of results and assessments from court leaders. Hythiam officials were also consulted, but they declined to answer questions.
“I don’t think we are going to be able to comment at this time,” spokeswoman Rachel Carr said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Since Prometa first emerged on the drug treatment scene, Hythiam has pushed for its entry into drug courts, banking on the potential infusion of credibility that they bring. Pierce County has served as the flagship for Hythiam’s marketing of Prometa, but the treatment has been used in other courts around the country.
Six court programs in six states, including Pierce County, have looked into Prometa since 2004. Results have been mixed.
Three courts, including Pierce County, still have active programs. A fourth program, in Indiana, has ended – court leaders wouldn’t mind another turn, but they don’t have the money.
One court dropped Prometa and doesn’t plan to try it again. In another court, the program never got started, despite promises of a 30-client test and a university-backed study of the results.
Hythiam’s earliest foray into drug courts began in fall 2004 in Covington, La.
That year, an Oct. 11 company news release announced that an addiction treatment center in Covington would offer Hythiam-licensed treatment to the 22nd Judicial District Court, where Judge Peter Garcia presided over the drug program.
The Prometa treatment had a different name at the time. It was known as “Hands.” Rebranding and the new trademarked name came later. (“Prometa” is a mash-up of Greek prefixes – rough translation: “for change.” Hythiam hired the same branding company that labeled Prozac and Viagra.)
In February 2006, another Hythiam news release touted the Louisiana program. It said the company, the court and Southern University would join forces to study the effects of Prometa on 30 drug court clients.
The release quoted Garcia, who said he looked forward to comparing Prometa’s effectiveness to the drug court’s historical success rates.
It didn’t happen. There were talks, nothing more.
“It never got to that point,” Garcia told The News Tribune last week. “The study was never done. Nothing was ever developed.”
Garcia didn’t see a single Prometa client in the drug court.
He recalls Hythiam’s aggressive marketing. The judge wanted evidence. “Show me,” he remembered telling company representatives.
“I was uncomfortable with what I was presented with,” he said. “They never satisfied me that this product was what they said it was.”
The study by Southern University hasn’t materialized. Faculty member Murelle Harrison is the lead researcher. Last week, she told The News Tribune the study is still active, but that the results haven’t been analyzed, and drug court clients aren’t involved. She couldn’t say when the study would be finished.
The City Court of Gary, Ind., launched a Prometa program in November 2005. The last client completed the treatment in July of this year. Public records from Indiana say Hythiam paid for the program with a $50,000 grant aimed at 30 drug court clients.
The Indiana experiment is a bright spot in Prometa’s history. Drug court Judge Deidre Monroe has praised the treatment publicly.
“I have never seen anything work so dramatically and successfully in such a short period of time,” Monroe wrote in the spring of this year. Her statement comes from an April 27 letter to Texas state Rep. Sylvester Turner, a legislator who wanted to know more about Prometa.
Citing results from the first six months of the Indiana program, Monroe’s letter to Turner said 80 percent of the drug court clients were “doing well.” She said clients were having an easier time finding jobs and keeping them.
She noted that Prometa clients were scoring well on aggregate drug tests – 95 percent were negative. She said the results for Prometa “far exceed our existing internal success rate.”
The numbers behind Monroe’s statements can’t be verified. The News Tribune filed a public records request with the Gary drug court in December, seeking any records describing the progress and results of the Prometa program.
Court officials provided a copy of a Hythiam-produced slide presentation that described the Gary program in general terms. They refused to supply any data, citing medical privacy laws.
In an October interview, Sisilla Rucker, a case manager at the court, told The News Tribune that 13 of the 30 Prometa clients in Gary – 43 percent – were “still clean.” Rucker thought the program was successful compared to typical drug court client results.
She added that the court would like to continue with Prometa, but cannot afford Hythiam’s asking price. (Prices per patient range from $5,000 to $15,000.)
In news releases, Hythiam regularly lists the Indiana program among Prometa’s successes.
Ties between the company and the Gary drug court go deeper. In July of this year, Hythiam added a new member to the board of directors: Karen Freeman-Wilson, former attorney general of Indiana, and former presiding judge of the Gary drug court.
Freeman-Wilson served as drug court judge from 1995 to 2000. She was not on the bench at the time of the Prometa experiment, but public records list her as “coordinating” the Indiana program.
Georgia’s Fulton County Superior Court started a Prometa program in December 2006. A Hythiam news release had announced the launch two months earlier.
The release said Fulton County would slot 20 clients into the treatment program, paid for by Hythiam. The court would compare the results to its historical success rates for drug treatment.
It turned out to be four clients, not 20. Fulton County ended the program in February 2007, three months after it started.
When The News Tribune asked why, court spokesman Don Plummer gave a three-sentence reply.
“We discontinued the program because it had not been effective for our Drug Court defendants,” he wrote in a Dec. 6 e-mail. “We cannot discuss patient outcomes or any patient-physician issues due to federal restrictions on the release of such information. We do not plan to use the program in the future.”
Plummer wouldn’t discuss reports that physician misconduct led to the program’s demise. The allegation appears in public records compiled by Pierce County auditors who were evaluating Prometa’s success in Tacoma.
Plummer wouldn’t provide the name of the physician who administered the Georgia program. When pressed about the nature of the alleged misconduct, he said he couldn’t comment.
In December 2006, a Hythiam news release announced a Prometa pilot program linked to 20 drug addicts on probation in Collin County, Texas.
Again, Hythiam paid for the project. The release quoted Judge Charles Sandoval of the 380th District Court in Collin County. He said that if Prometa worked, he would support adding it to the court’s drug treatment programs.
Texas lawmakers joined in. State Rep. Jerry Madden, chairman of the state House Corrections Committee, said he would push for increased drug treatment funding.
Madden was as good as his word. In legislation passed earlier this year, the Texas Legislature included $2 million for drug treatment. Another Texas county, Denton, announced that it would begin treating drug offenders with Prometa.
Sandoval underlined his backing of Prometa last summer. In a June 20 letter to Judge Doris Downs of Atlanta, Sandoval said the pilot program in Texas “surpassed our expectations. I fully support the use of Prometa within the Criminal Justice System which includes drug courts, probation, re-entry programs, jails and prisons.”
The Collin County pilot program lasted 90 days. A Hythiam news release said 74 percent of the clients did not test positive for drugs during that period.
Bob Hughes, director of the probation department in Collin County, gave different numbers to The News Tribune in a recent interview. He said nine of the 20 drug court clients who received Prometa – less than 50 percent – were still clean.
“I kind of reserve judgment till this thing has been around a while,” Hughes said. “It’s too early to tell how it’s gonna turn out. We have some people who are convinced it’s really changed their lives. You can’t really quantify that. I’ve seen a few good things and heard some good things from people. I guess I’m still skeptical.”
The Las Vegas Municipal Court is the latest to start a Prometa program. Court leaders visited Pierce County in September to see how the treatment was working here.
A Sept. 11 news release from Hythiam announced the Las Vegas program and quoted Judge Cedric Kerns, who said he looked forward to evaluating the treatment.
The Nevada program has 20 clients. Hythiam is funding it. The court will pay for additional clients, possibly $5,000 per patient, if it decides to continue the program.
A Dec. 9 story in the Las Vegas Sun quoted Kerns, who said 15 of the 20 clients were doing well. Kerns said he did not own stock in Hythiam.
“We’re just giving it a shot and seeing if it works,” Kerns told the Sun. “If we don’t want it, we just tell them no thanks.”
Some courts have welcomed Prometa – others have turned it down.
Drug court leaders in King, Snohomish and Thurston counties told The News Tribune that they’ve been approached by Hythiam representatives. All said they rejected the overtures, preferring to wait for clinical studies that would prove the treatment’s effectiveness.
In November 2006, Idaho state drug court leaders took the same position, voting against a Hythiam proposal to bring Prometa into the court system.
“They proposed that we pay them about $80,000 for the pleasure of having them experiment with some of our felons in our drug court program,” said Judge Ron Wilper, a member of the state’s drug court coordinating committee.
After researching the company and the treatment, noting Prometa’s lack of Food and Drug Administration approval and the absence of unbiased clinical studies, committee members decided to say no.
Hythiam gave the impression that “they wanted us to partner with them so they could put out a press release,” Wilper said.
“We’re hicks, I grant you that,” he added. “But we didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I said, ‘Give us a buzz when you prove it.’”
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
Staff writer M. Alexander Otto contributed to this report.