WKYT Investigates | Is Vivitrol a cure for drug addiction?

Published: Apr. 7, 2016 at 4:43 PM EDT
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Vivitrol is a once-a-month shot which is supposed to stop cravings before they start. While the drug has been around for some time, it's been getting more traction.

"I never dreamed I'd be sober," said Robert Pearson who spends his work days putting up siding. He's putting a new face on an existing structure. Similar to his own life. "I thought I would die a drug addict."

After years of opioid addiction, Pearson ended up receiving treatment at LifeCore Recovery in London. LifeCore specializes in using Vivitrol, a treatment drug that is not a narcotic.

"I haven't had any cravings or thoughts of using, but I also remember what it was like to walk through that hell," Pearson recalled of his detox from eight years on Suboxone and other opiates.

Dr. Stephen Lamb treats addiction from an office in Lexington. He's been prescribing Suboxone, a popular treatment drug that contains a narcotic to help ward off the need for patients to get high, since 2003.

Suboxone, according to law enforcement officials WKYT has interviewed in previous stories, is the most highly abused drug in Southern and Eastern Kentucky right now.

In 2015, Suboxone was the third most popularly prescribed drug covered by Medicaid.

"There are problems and mistakes," Dr. Lamb said. "But again, I don't know what else to do. If I did, I'd do it and I know it works when you do it right."

Along with therapy, Dr. Lamb said Suboxone can be a cure, but admitted his patients are completely clean since Suboxone is a narcotic.

"If they get well. If they start doing well in their lives, I call that serious. If you get your kids back and take care of them, that's serious. If you stay employed, that's serious," Lamb explained.

Jesse Howard is one of Dr. Lamb's patients. He came in to start Suboxone treatments for the second time. "I can see where people would say, 'Well, you are still taking a drug to beat a drug.' But this is much more effective than buying pain pills off the street."

Howard is 40 years-old. He said he's been in and out of treatment since his late 20's. Dr. Lamb started him on Suboxone and gave him small increments until he felt functional again. Howard said this time, he will be successful. He tried to go cold-turkey the last time he was prescribed Suboxone and it didn't work. He was back to buying on the street before he knew it. He knows he needs Suboxone to be productive in life. "It's not like you take the pill and that's it. I have to go to meetings," he explained about Dr. Lamb's counseling.

In Northern Kentucky, a clinic is seeing sixteen Vivitrol patients a day. Florence Medical Group leaders said Vivitrol is a cure for opioid addiction. They said Suboxone is not. "It's (Suboxone) continuing the addiction. It doesn't stop it. Three-quarters of our patients have relapsed off of Suboxone because they still have the opiates in it," said Teresa Gregory.

Vivitrol is a once-a-month shot. It's supposed to stop cravings before they start. And if a patient tries to get use drugs, they won't feel the effects. The drug has been around for some time, but lately, it is getting more traction. "What we were used to hearing was Methadone and Suboxone and those are welI known that those don't really work and everyone knows they are being diverted and that's scary," explained Nurse Practitioner Katrina Lock. Lock said her office is seeing 60 to 70 percent success rates with Vivitrol. She warned patients have to be serious about their recovery, though, because if a patient gets the shot and has opioids in their system, the shot could send them into a more severe withdrawal.

Gregory said the cost of Vivitrol out of pocket is around $1000, which is a good bit more than a month's supply of Suboxone. But she said, in her experience, insurance, including Kentucky Medicaid will cover Vivitrol.

"I've offered the Vivitrol for a long time to people," Dr. Lamb said. "They say it sounds good, but when the rubber hits the road, when the time comes, they say 'I'm not sure I can do this.' They are frightened of taking it."

Pearson is in his second month of using Vivitrol. And his second month of holding down a full-time job. Pearson said it's God that's kept him sober, but the Vivitrol is comfort that he won't fall back to his old ways. For Howard, Suboxone is comfort too. Both men taking different routes for the same outcome.