(KNOXVILLE) An increasing number of lawmakers are putting America's growing opiate abuse epidemic at the top of their priority list.
Democratic presidential candidates addressed the issue in Sunday night's debate, and President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union Address last week.
Most medications used to help people in active addiction are, themselves, in some way addictive or habit-forming, or they require taking a daily dose, which can be a challenge for people struggling with opiate abuse.
But a drug called Naltrexone - or Vivitrol - is different, and it's successfully changing lives right here in East Tennessee.
Kurt Rudd's addiction to painkillers began in his 30s, with neck surgery - and a prescription.
"I got to the point where I was just completely out of control," Rudd told WBIR 10News.
The cheaper opiate heroin soon became his drug of choice.
"I remember one time, driving down Ault Road in East Knoxville, on the way to my dealer's house. I had money in my pocket and I just thought, 'You know what, I guess I'll just do this until I die, and I hope it's soon,'" Rudd recalled. "You just wake up and it's just a miserable, miserable existence."
After hitting a low point, Rudd found his way into recovery.
He'll be two years clean in May and decided nine months ago he needed some extra help.
Marta Pratt is a nurse practitioner at Westbrook Medical Center in West Knoxville and founded the clinic's Vivitrol program about two years ago.
"Vivitrol is a monthly injection, so you can't trade it or abuse it," she explained. "You come once a month to get the Vivitrol injection. It blocks the effects of opiates as well as controls the cravings."
She said she sees more than 100 patients per month, "and the numbers are growing."
Five years ago, the FDA approved Vivitrol, which is an extended-release, injectable form of the drug Naltrexone.
"There's nothing habit-forming with Vivitrol," Pratt said. "You do not have to detox from Vivitrol, and that's another plus: it doesn't substitute for an opiate."
Previously, Naltrexone had just been used treat to alcoholism.
"(It) blocks the part of the brain where (addicts) achieve the euphoria. You will not get any euphoria or pleasure from opiates or alcohol while you're on the Vivitrol injection," Pratt said. "It lasts for 28 days, so you come in once a month, and it's an extended-release form, so you don't come in and get a pill that you can skip. You actually get the injection, and it lasts for 28 days."
"Vivitrol is part of a recovery program," Rudd said. "It's not the cure, it's not the answer, but it's been instrumental in saving my life and keeping me clean."
"People have gotten their lives back, their jobs back," Pratt said. "It takes at least 12 months for your brain to recover from the drug use, so if you're on the injections every month, you can focus more on your recovery and getting well."
Vivitrol injections are taken for 12 to 18 months, coupled with intense therapy.
Rudd, a licensed counselor, is now providing counseling to recovering addicts at Knoxville Serenity Center.
Two drawbacks to Vivitrol are the preparation - a patient has to be clean for about a week before he or she can start treatment - and cost. One monthly injection can cost between $700 and $1,000, but a lot of insurance programs - even TennCare - offer some form of coverage for the drug.
For more information on the drug Naltrexone, which treats both alcoholism and opiate addiction, check out the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website HERE.
To learn more about Vivitrol, check out this SAMHSA publication.