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Vivitrol: Desperate families seek ‘miracle shot’ for heroin addiction

Posted at 10:48 PM, Jan 29, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-29 22:48:57-05

MASSAPEQUA, Long Island (PIX11) -- When the parents of a 19-year-old Long Island teen consented to PIX 11 News being present as their son was injected with a medicine called Vivitrol, it was a last-ditch effort to get the insurance company to understand their pain—and frustration—as they fight to end the teen’s heroin addiction.

“They say it’s not medically-necessary,” the teen’s father told PIX11 News. “That’s a lot of crap.”

The family wished to maintain its privacy but was eager to share the journey they’ve taken to kill their youngest son’s cravings for heroin.

“I think the Vivitrol definitely helps a lot,” the teen told PIX11 after the large needle containing a milky-looking fluid was injected into a muscle near his buttocks.

“I definitely think it reduces my cravings and makes me want to use less,” the young college student told us.

Vivitrol, administered once a month, can cost about $1500 a shot. But the company that produces the product told PIX11 it offers a Vivitrol Value Program that will cover up to $500 of the cost, with the hope that insurance and other government programs will cover the rest.

“I think it’s important for your viewers to know that there is help with the cost and to not be discouraged by it,” Jennifer Snyder, a Vivitrol spokeswoman, said to PIX11 by e-mail.

“In fact, 92% of patients using the program have no out-of-pocket expenses associated with receiving Vivitrol.”

Yet a couple of middle class families we spoke to said it’s hard to get insurance companies to cover treatment of more than a couple of months.

Two years ago, a federal official called Vivitrol the “future of addiction treatment” since it suppresses cravings, and users don’t get physically dependent on it. This is something that distinguishes Vivitrol from traditional treatments like Methadone and, more recently, Suboxone—both opiate-based treatments that involve some physical dependency.

It should be noted, though, that addicts seeking treatment with Vivitrol must go through the painful withdrawal from heroin and other opioids, before they begin getting the shots.

Vivitrol contains an agent that blocks the brain from reacting to opiates. Dr. Jan told PIX11 it contains naltrexone, what he called the “sister drug” to Narcan, which reverses overdoses in people suffering respiratory distress.

Vivitrol was originally used to help alcoholics to stop craving a drink.

“It dramatically reduces cravings,” Dr. Thomas Jan of Massapequa Pain Management told PIX11 News at his offices on Long Island. Dr. Jan administered the Vivitrol shot to the teen we interviewed.

“What happens is, every four weeks you get a shot,” Dr. Jan said. “I usually go until just past a year, when they’re well invested in recovery,” before taking patients off the treatment.

Dr. Jan said it’s extremely important that patients on Vivitrol seek counseling or a 12-step program, apart from the shots.

Dr. Jan noted that while Vivitrol will decrease an addict’s craving, “it doesn’t shut it off.”

“I tell patients, ‘Look, you’re an addict. You’re not responsible for the thought. You’re responsible for the action.”

“Recovery is not that you never think of it again,” Dr. Jan noted. “It’s that your life in recovery becomes so much better than it was with the presence of the addiction, that you don’t want to go back to it. With time, the cravings become less. The thought becomes less.”

One study showed that patients who remained on Vivitrol for six months stayed drug free.

The father of the 19 year old we met in Dr. Jan’s office said he sees traces of his son’s old self coming back, now that he’s received three treatments with Vivitrol.

“His personality is starting to come back,” the father said, “The way he used to be, and it just seems like he’s a lot happier. He was bubbly, a nice kid to be around."

“He loves music, he’s very talented,” the father added.  “It just seems it’s going to go to waste, if he doesn’t get better.”

Vivitrol—for many families—is the miracle shot they’re seeking for a shot of hope.