State to try new drug to fight opiate addiction

MONTPELIER — The state will begin offering a drug to inmates leaving prison that blocks the brain’s pleasure center, with the goal of reducing relapses into opiate addiction.

Beginning in January, inmates leaving Marble Valley Correctional Facility will have access to naltrexone, a drug that prevents a user from feeling high when ingesting an opiate such as heroin or oxycodone.

So far, the state has trained 50 health care providers to prescribe naltrexone, a drug that is administered once a month by injection; however, no special training needed and the drug can be administered by any prescriber.

Currently, the drug is approved for use in treating alcoholism and opiate addiction.

While the drug itself is not new — some doctors have been prescribing the drug all along — the state is looking to expand its use in the hope of curbing the state’s opiate epidemic.

Peter Shumlin

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 1. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“We are trying to find every single tool available that we can to help us move people from addiction to recovery,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said Tuesday.

Naltrexone — whose commercial names include Revia and Vivitrol — will be available to as many as 350 men leaving the Rutland jail, with patients screened to determine the likelihood they would benefit from the drug.

In inmate will receive his first dose 30 days prior to releases, according to Lisa Menard, commissioner for the Department of Corrections, who said approximately 70 percent of inmates leaving Vermont’s prison system have some sort of substance abuse issue.

The treatment is paid for as part of a three-year, $3 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services received by the state Department of Health in August. In addition to paying for the cost of the drug, the money will also be used to study its efficacy.

Hal Cohen, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, noted that naltrexone differs from other drugs offered to patients recovering from opiate addiction such as methadone or buprenorphine, which are themselves opiates.

Hal Cohen

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

Agency of Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“It is not divertable, unlike buprenorphine or methadone,” Cohen said. “You can’t get high on it. It’s not an opiate alternative. It’s an opiate blocker.”

And, the fact it’s administered monthly — instead of daily doses of buprenorphine or methadone — will save the patient a daily trip to the doctor or clinic.

Dr. Gordon Frankle, medical director for the West Ridge Addiction Treatment Center in Rutland — one of three recently opened treatment centers in the state, along with Bennington and St. Johnsbury — said the state’s inmate population is particularly vulnerable to opiate abuse.

“Coming out of corrections, they don’t often link up with treatment options,” Frankle said. “They are often at high risk of overdose. They are often at high risk of relapse. They are often at high risk of re-offending.”

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Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Dr. Harry Chen, commissioner of the Department of Health, said the drug isn’t right for everyone, but does expand a patient’s treatment options.

“It’s not a magic bullet for all those who are addicted, but the more tools and strategies we have, the more we can tailor our therapy for that individual,” Chen said.

This state initiative is one of many since January 2014, when Shumlin dedicated his State of the State Address to Vermont’s opiate crisis. Since then, the state has increased funding for drug treatment by 16 percent and 1,000 more people are seeking treatment now than were doing so two years ago.

The state is also handing out naloxone, which is administered to someone experiencing an overdose, and has in place a court-diversion process that sends nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

“We’ve recognized we were doing almost everything wrong in terms of moving folks from addiction to recovery,” Shumlin said.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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