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Questionable diabetes treatment that raised hopes now at the center of criminal charges

A national network of clinics claims it offers a miraculous procedure to treat diabetes, but many in the medical community are not convinced. Special correspondent Cheryl Clark from inewsource tells the story of a couple in rural Montana who believed in the treatment and even invested in opening their own clinic, before its founder was arrested on federal public corruption charges.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, around 30 million Americans, one-tenth of the country's population, live with diabetes.

    Medical guidelines for treatments include a healthy diet, exercise and regulating blood sugar levels.

    As with many diseases, there are also unproven treatments that have produced anecdotal success stories.

    From inewsource, an independently funded nonprofit media organization, Cheryl Clark reports.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    Dillon is a small rural town of about 4,000 people in Southwestern Montana's Beaverhead Valley.

    Here, everyone knows everyone, including Ron and Julie Briggs. Four years ago, Ron, the county coroner, was ready to give up on his longtime fight with diabetes.

    We spoke with them in December.

  • Ron Briggs:

    I have been a diabetic for 55 years. I have heard from everybody under the sun. Everybody's got a cure for diabetes.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    His diabetes was so severe, he often landed in the local hospital in a diabetic coma. But Ron's wife, Julie, wouldn't give up hope.

  • Julie Briggs:

    And I thought, we have worked really hard, and I don't want my husband to die now.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    At a particularly low point in 2014, Julie started searching online for diabetes treatments. She discovered a national network of clinics called Trina Health.

    It was founded by Sacramento lawyer G. Ford Gilbert, who said he had developed a miraculous procedure to treat diabetes.

  • G. Ford Gilbert:

    When you have extra insulin…

  • Cheryl Clark:

    Gilbert insisted in a February interview with us that his treatment stops, even reverses the complications of diabetes.

    Here's how he explained the results.

  • G. Ford Gilbert:

    You get your brain functionality back. You get eye functionality back. You get kidney functionality back. You resolve unhealing wounds that have been unhealing and weeping for years.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    The four-hour procedure involves infusing insulin into a patient's bloodstream through an I.V. Gilbert says the infusions, as shown in this Trina video, help patients better metabolize carbohydrates, and that restores their health.

  • G. Ford Gilbert:

    Any person who truly understands what we do is wildly impressed and enamored with the outcomes we achieve.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    But many in the medical community are not convinced.

    Dr. John Buse, a former president of the American Diabetes Association, was blunt in his criticism of Trina when he spoke with us.

  • Dr. John Buse:

    The pitch was pretty slick and compelling, whereas the evidence that I could find was pretty much nonexistent.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    In 2016, at the request of a potential Trina investor, Buse spent hours reviewing Gilbert's materials.

  • Dr. John Buse:

    I would sort of characterize it more on the scam end of the spectrum of business opportunities.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    Medicare and at least one major insurance company say they have found no sufficient that the Trina treatments actually benefit patients, so they won't pay for them.

    But Gilbert had a work-around. Instead of billing the Trina treatments as one all-inclusive claim, his company submitted claims for each of the services separately. Ron Briggs began receiving Trina treatments in 2014.

    He and his wife thought they had found an answer, if only for a while.

  • Ron Briggs:

    I found something that would help with my situation, and it wasn't that I thought would help. I knew would help.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    Ron traveled every week to a clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, to get the infusions.

  • Julie Briggs:

    After the fourth time, Ron kind of called me up on the phone and he said, "I don't know what we're going to do, but I have to do this the rest of my life."

  • Cheryl Clark:

    So, Ron and Julie rallied support in Dillon to open their own clinic. They said they paid Ford Gilbert about $300,000 for fees and equipment. The couple tried to persuade Dillon's local hospital and its doctors to oversee it, including Dr. Sandra McIntyre.

  • Dr. Sandra McIntyre:

    And part of that conversation was, would one of you in this organization be the medical director if we — if the Briggs chose to move forward? And we pretty much said the same thing, which is, why would we be medical directors over a service that we don't think has scientific merit?

  • Cheryl Clark:

    The doctors recommended the hospital not get involved.

    McIntyre said when patients like Ron have a chronic disease, they look for anything they think will make them feel better.

  • Dr. Sandra McIntyre:

    And when someone offers something that really is painless, essentially, and cost-free to you, with this promise of a miracle, it — it hooks patients. It hooks them.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    Without the support of hospital doctors, Ron and Julie opened their clinic anyway in 2015. They hired nurses to perform the insulin infusions and treated as many as 15 patients. Two of those patients said Trina was miraculous, and even extended their lives.

    But not all thought their health improved. Some, like Ruby Montie, suffered severe side effects from the treatment process.

  • Ruby Montie:

    It was more than severe diarrhea. And I just couldn't handle it. I was getting dehydrated, and I would come home, and my husband would tell me that I just looked washed out.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    Over the past five years, more than two dozen Trina clinics have opened in 17 states. But, by early 2017, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana was questioning the Dillon clinic's reimbursement claims.

    And the private insurer and federal authorities were investigating Gilbert's billing practices. Gilbert told us he nothing wrong.

  • G. Ford Gilbert:

    There's no fraud. There's nobody a bad actor here.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    But Blue Cross Blue Shield had already been refusing to cover Trina treatments in Alabama. Eventually, the insurance company stopped payments in Montana.

    That decision led Ron and Julie to close their clinic.

  • Ron Briggs:

    I have invested $750,000 in this whole thing. We were told that the insurance companies were in line.

  • Julie Briggs:

    You see — on TV, you see all of these things about, this medication, if you take this medication, your legs are going to fall off and your arms are going to fall off and your nose is going to turn blue, and it's going to kill you.

    And the insurance companies are covering all that. But something…

  • Ron Briggs:

    That helps.

  • Julie Briggs:

    … that helps and has saved my husband's life, they don't even want to look at.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    But Ron's life wasn't saved. In late December, he told his wife he didn't think he'd last the night. He wound up in a hospital with kidney failure, heart disease and a blood clot, all possibly related to his diabetes. Days later, Ron died.

    When we spoke with Gilbert weeks later, he remain committed to expanding his network of clinics.

  • G. Ford Gilbert:

    We will achieve remedial treatment for hundreds of millions of people. And I say that without a worry in this world.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    But, in April, Ford Gilbert was arrested this month on federal public corruption charges in Alabama. He is accused of fraud and bribery in a failed scheme prosecutors say was intended to get a state law passed to force coverage of Trina infusions.

  • Richard Jaffe:

    And very adamantly and respectfully pleaded not guilty.

  • Cheryl Clark:

    A state legislature and lobbyists were also arrested. All three have denied the charges and await trial.

    The clinic in Dillon remains closed. So are clinics in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and California. Others have shut down their Web sites or stripped away the name Trina. But some clinics continue to offer the unproven Trina treatment and to advertise that insurance and Medicare are covering it. How long that will continue is unknown.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm inewsource reporter Cheryl Clark in Dillon, Montana.

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