Selling women better sex life with hormone replacement, did company put profits before patients?

(WXYZ) - HRC's commercials will get your attention.  Overjoyed clients—mostly women—telling you how their lives are so much better since having their hormones replaced.

"It's like I'm 20 again, my passion returned (and) my intimacy with my husband," one featured patient said.

"I just feel like a new person," said another.

Clients like Bonnie Haggerty-Leister have stories, too. But you can bet HRC won't be turning any of them into commercials.  

"They don't know what they took away from me. They should be ashamed of themselves," she said.

Like more than 35,000 women and men, Bonnie couldn't resist HRC's sales pitch of a second chance at youth.

"Of course you're tired, run-down, they push of course your sex drive you know, get back to your 20s and 30s.  Who doesn't want that?" she said.

The company markets its bioidentical hormone replacement therapy as a safe, natural alternative to traditional synthetic therapies, and says symptoms like poor focus, tiredness and even dry skin are signs that it's time to have your hormones replaced. 

Even HRC's $3,000 price tag couldn't keep Bonnie away from the promise of a better life.  So she started the procedure, getting a series of small pellets inserted just beneath her skin.

"So three months after that first treatment?" asked 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones.

"Is when my hair started (falling out)," Haggerty-Leister said.

She says symptoms like fatigue and poor focus never went away. In fact, more serious side effects started to emerge: heavy uterine bleeding, severe abdominal pain, heart palpitations, nausea and extreme weight loss.

"I was so frail. Bony," Haggerty-Leister said, adding that she weighed 125-lbs. at the start of the procedure, but dropped all the way down to 95.  

On a day in 2011, after her health deteriorated rapidly, Bonnie was rushed to the emergency room.  She called a nurse at HRC to ask if their product might be to blame.

"I begged her crying on the phone: ‘Is there anything that you are giving me that could be possibly doing this to me?' And she firmly said to me, ‘No way possible.  Our stuff is safe, there is nothing that could be harmful that we are giving you,' " Bonnie recalls.

But her doctors said otherwise. After examining her, one wrote that Bonnie's therapy was "against medical advice." Another said she needed to stop to "prevent further damage to her body."

Beaumont Hospital's Dr. Mark Dykowski says that all hormone replacement therapy comes with risks, even those like HRC's that claim to be natural and safe.  Any hormone therapy can lead to serious side effects, the FDA says, like heart disease, breast cancer and dementia in some women.

"For someone to suggest that there are no risks involved with these, that they're completely safe is being disingenuous," Dykowski said.

"And, in theory, lying to the patients."

In Tennessee, where HRC is based, the state's attorney general is taking legal action that could shut the company down.  Officials say they've taken hundreds of complaints from women who believe HRC's treatments caused side effects ranging from facial hair to cancer.  

"Nobody's done a test on the particular cocktail of hormones that they were inserting into people," said Jeff Hill, a senior lawyer in the Tennessee Attorney General's office.

"Are you convinced that they put profits ahead of patients?" asked Jones.

"I think the drive was for profit, yes," Hill said.

7 Action News asked Dr. Steve Lasater, who treated Bonnie, to be interviewed on the therapy he provides.  He declined, so we caught up with him on his way into work at a different company in Grand Rapids

"I'm not able to make a statement," Lasater said, dodging our cameras and our questions about his recent discipline with the state of Michigan.

In July, Attorney General Bill Schuette's office accused him of negligence and incompetence: pre-signing prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy for patients he never met with and having nurses diagnose and treat women that were supposed to be under his care. In a hearing last month, Lasater admitted to all of it, saying it was HRC policy. He was fined and ordered to pay restitution.

It's little consolation to Haggerty-Leister, who wants other women to know of the dangers of bioidential hormone replacement therapy.

"I thought I was going to die. I was scared. And I thought I was never going to see my son graduate from West Pointe...I thought I wasn't going to be here anymore," she said.

Bonnie tells 7 Action News that once she was taken off her hormone treatments, her health started to improve. She gained back that weight she lost, she's more energetic and her hair has finally grown back.

Dr. Lasater's medical license is still intact.  He told 7 Action News that even though the FDA says the bioidential therapy he and other doctors perform hasn't been proven safe, plenty of other smaller studies show that it is. 

He no longer works for HRC, which is in receivership in Tennesse, because in Michigan, the company is now under new ownership: it's called Legacy Medical, which provides the same sorts of therapy to women and men. Lasater now works with Legacy. For weeks we've been trying to reach the company's owners, but they haven't called us back. 

If you've had a problem with your treatment from HRC, Michigan's Attorney General wants to hear from you. You can file a complaint here. 

You can also contact the 7 Action News Investigators at tips@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466. 

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