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In a state crippled by opioid addictions, Kentucky lawmakers hope drugs can help drug addicts

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SOMERSET, Kentucky — At her lowest point, Deanna Hays' stole Disney movies from her 3-year-old nephew to sell for drug money.

The 37-year-old Somerset woman's addiction to prescription painkillers was so strong that she couldn't help herself, even if it meant harming the relationship with her family. But for the past eight months, Hays could not get high no matter how many pills she took. That's because she gets an injection every 28 days of Vivitrol — an extended release form of naltrexone — that blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. It means opioids like prescription painkillers and heroin have no effect on her.

Kentucky lawmakers hope the drug can act as a bridge to sobriety in a state that has been crippled by opioid addictions, including heroin and prescription painkillers like oxycodone. Heroin overdose deaths in Kentucky have increased more than tenfold in just two years, with the worst problems in northern Kentucky and Louisville. A high profile bill passed last month to address the heroin problem included an additional $10 million to expand medicated drug treatment programs, including the use of Vivitrol and products like it.

Vivitrol is available at private rehab facilities and doctors can prescribe it. But the only place to get it in a criminal justice setting in Kentucky is in Somerset through the Supervision Motivation Accountable Responsibility and Treatment program, also known as SMART probation. There Judge David Tapp partnered with a local clinic to provide Vivitrol injections to addicts who agreed to try it. The first dose is free, with subsequent doses paid for by private insurance or Medicaid.

"It's totally took drugs out of (my life). I mean, I don't even think about it," said 31-year-old Travis Roberts, one of the first people to use Vivitrol in the program.

Kentucky's new law means medications like Vivitrol could be offered for free at state-run drug treatment programs across Kentucky. Other states have taken similar steps. West Virginia lawmakers just approved a pilot program that includes Vivitrol. And Ohio has been offering Vivitrol through its Addiction Treatment Pilot Project for the past two years.

PHOTO: Judge David A. Tapp address a group of prisoners as he evaluates their willingness to participate in the Supervision Motivation Accountable Responsibility and Treatment program, also known as SMART probation at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Somerset, Ky., Thursday, April 9, 2015. The probation program, overseen by Judge Tapp, provides medication under the brand name Vivitrol that blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. It means opioids like prescription painkillers and heroin would have no effect on addicts, which would help them stop using the drugs. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Judge David A. Tapp address a group of prisoners as he evaluates their willingness to participate in the Supervision Motivation Accountable Responsibility and Treatment program, also known as SMART probation at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Somerset, Ky., Thursday, April 9, 2015. The probation program, overseen by Judge Tapp, provides medication under the brand name Vivitrol that blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. It means opioids like prescription painkillers and heroin would have no effect on addicts, which would help them stop using the drugs. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

State officials are still debating how and when to use Vivitrol, particularly given its high cost of $300 per injection. Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said he believes it can help addicts who got clean in prison to stay off drugs once they are released. Data from Ohio's program shows people need to use Vivitrol a minimum for nine months for it to be effective.

David Mink, a 34-year-old maintenance worker from Science Hill, used Vivitrol for about two months at a private treatment facility in Elizabethtown. He said Vivitrol made it easy for him to stay clean, but he quickly went back to using drugs after it wore off.

"I thought, after I got out of there and I didn't have those cravings for 15 days, 'Well it can be beat.' It can't," he said.

Mink is back on Vivitrol now through the SMART probation program, only this time he has increased counseling sessions to cope with the psychological effects of drug addiction.

"To just give Vivitrol or Suboxone to any individual, you're only looking at about a 20 percent recovery rate. If I offer that in conjunction with individual or group counseling, now you're up to about a 60 percent recovery rate," said Andrea Boxill, deputy director of the Governor's Cabinet Opiate Action Team in Ohio.

Tapp recommends defendants in SMART probation use Vivitrol for a year. So far, no one has completed the full cycle. But he is full of partial success stories, including 25-year-old Deedra Ship, whom he described as a "serial thief" and "a freaking terror" before going on Vivitrol and turning her life around. Now she has a stable job and is enrolling in the local community college.

"They're really proud of themselves. For a lot of (addicts in the program) this is the best they've done forever," Tapp said. "We want them to have that when it comes time to get off of Vivitrol. We want them to know they can do it."

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