Family Health CentersLouisville’s Family Health Centers will begin offering medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for patients with opioid addiction, administering shots of naltrexone — a drug commercially known as Vivitrol that blocks opioid receptors in the brain to negate the euphoric effect of heroin and prescription painkillers.

Family Health Centers, a nonprofit with seven clinics in Louisville, is making the leap to MAT to combat the region’s growing opioid epidemic. As the state’s crackdown on prescription painkillers has reduced their supply, opioid addicts are increasingly turning to the cheaper and easily available heroin, with deadly results — as heroin overdoses and deaths have leapt in the past year statewide and in Louisville.

“We know there is a need among our patients for opioid treatment and recovery,” says Bill Wagner, CEO of Family Health Centers. “In the past, Family Health Centers has provided substance abuse services to our patients who are homeless, but now the need for services extends to many of our other patients.”

Their new substance abuse program was made possible by a $325,000 annual grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which will allow current patients with an opioid addiction to receive monthly shots of Vivitrol, in addition to assessments and case management from in-house social workers and drug counselors to support them through the recovery process. Approximately 400 patients will be served annually by this new program annually, which begins this month.

Though several opioid addiction treatment providers in Louisville have begun offering MAT that includes the drug buprenorphine — such as Seven Counties Services and the Morton Center, who cite research and experts touting it as very effective in breaking dependance on heroin — Family Health Centers spokeswoman Melissa Noyes Mather says they decided not to because their providers did not want to “take that on.”

“With Subxone (a common brand containing buprenorphine) there’s the opportunity for abuse, and we just didn’t want to go down that route where we might have people coming in who were seeking Suboxone or something else for purposes other than MAT,” says Mather. “So we thought Vivitrol was something that was more manageable for us in the sense that it’s a monthly shot and there’s no street value for it, it’s not going to get you high.”

The debate over buprenorphine — which is a partial opioid agonist — is ongoing, as many in law enforcement are concerned about its diversion and abuse, and those who adhere to an abstinence-only 12 steps treatment philosophy view it as just another drug to replace heroin and get high on. However, a growing amount of research and experts in the field tout its effectiveness, and the federal government is currently taking steps to break down legal barriers that have prevented addicts from having access to such treatment.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is nearly tripling the cap on the number of patients a physician can prescribe buprenorphine to, and legislation passed by Congress this week is designed to expand access to MAT and this drug — though Democrats have argued that not enough money has been appropriated for these efforts to have its desired impact.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]