Monthly Vivitrol treatment helps fight heroin addiction

Sean Lyman has a standing appointment at his doctor's office every 28 days. Like clockwork, the recovering heroin addict is injected with an emerging treatment drug that he says has turned his life around.

"The shot is just... I don't know how to describe it, besides it's a miracle," Lyman told CBS News.

The 25-year-old Vermont resident has battled addiction for years; he was hooked on prescription painkillers before he moved on to the more powerful and cheaper alternative, heroin. Lyman says he's been in and out of jail and more than half a dozen rehab programs that haven't worked.

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Vivitrol.
CBS News

Now Lyman is among a small, but growing number of opioid addicts embracing Vivitrol. The monthly injection is the first treatment that's kept him clean.

Doctors and the drug maker, Alkermes, recommend users go through detox first. Then, the injection stops cravings and blocks the body's opioid receptors, so even if users try to get high they don't feel it. Vivitrol is not addictive like other treatments can be, including suboxone and methadone, and there's no black market for it. Lyman said not long after he began the injections, he put it to the test.

"I actually tried... to get high because I was having a hard time and the shot stopped it." Lyman said. "At the time, I was very angry that I didn't get high. But the next day, I was so thankful. I can't even describe it. And I haven't even thought about sticking a needle in my arm since then."

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Sean Lyman.
CBS News

Lyman lives in White River Junction, Vermont. Since he started his Vivitrol injections 15 months ago, he says six of his friends have died from overdoses. Like much of the country, Vermont is in the grips of a drug crisis that prompted Gov. Peter Shumlin to devote his entire 2014 State of the State address to the heroin epidemic. The number of people treated for heroin abuse there has quadrupled over the past decade. Shumlin has been candid and outspoken about the problem and is leading the call for new solutions. He believes Vivitrol may be one of them.

"The first thing we're doing is approving it in all of our treatment centers. And we've been building out treatment centers like mad in Vermont. So then we also want to try it in our prisons because that's frankly a good place to do it," Shumlin said.

The state is rolling out a pilot program this month where recovering addicts coming out of the Marble Valley Correctional Center in Rutland will be offered the shot. If successful, state leaders plan to expand it to all of the state's seven prisons, which could help as many as 350 inmates.

"Let's start providing treatment and medicines that can actually get people back to productive lives," Shumlin said in an interview.

The pilot program is funded as part of a three-year, $3 million grant from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services/Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Outside of the program, the shot can cost more than $1,000 a month, but many insurance companies and Medicaid cover it.

Vivitrol was first approved to treat alcohol dependence in 2006. Since the FDA approved the injection for opioid dependence in 2010, Alkermes says there are now around 100 programs using it in 30 states. Since its approval, sales have jumped from more than $18 million in 2009 to more than $106 million in the first three quarters of 2015 . While the company said programs in Michigan, Missouri, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio were some of the earliest adopters, it believes Vermont is the only state that has approved it for use statewide.

"It is gratifying to see use of VIVITROL increasing across the country. It has taken time - VIVITROL is a new approach to treating opioid addiction and it requires new behaviors by physicians, counselors, nurses and other elements of the treatment system," Alkermes CEO Richard Pops said in a statement. "In many ways, the expansion of these programs has been somewhat organic, meaning that the success of one program in a particular county may spur another county to develop their own."

Lyman says he will keep taking Vivitrol until he is comfortable enough to stop. But for the first time in years he says he's happy. He now has a full-time job and he and his girlfriend have a baby daughter. He says she is a constant reminder of why he's fighting to stay clean.

"Knowing I can live a life sober, and not have to depend on that. I can't stop smiling thinking about it. It's just crazy."