Maker Of Opioid Treatment Under Scrutiny Has Ramped Up Political Activity In Tennessee

Jun 19, 2017

The maker of an opioid treatment that's come under scrutiny recently contributed more than $20,000 to candidates in Tennessee last year.

The donations appear to be part of an aggressive nationwide campaign aimed at influencing state legislatures.

The company is called Alkermes, and it makes a medication known as Vivitrol.

The drug has lots of fans because it blocks the brain's receptors to opioids. Alkermes says the once-a-month injection can keep people who are battling addiction to pain pills or heroin from getting high.

But an investigation from NPR and Side Effects Public Media has found Alkermes promotes Vivitrol at the expense of other treatments for opioid addiction.

And not by convincing doctors. Instead, the company targets lawmakers, judges and law enforcement officials. That campaign has succeeded in getting one state — Indiana — to pass measures favoring Vivitrol.

MORE: A Drugmaker Tries To Cash In On The Opioid Epidemic, One State Law At A Time

In Tennessee, Alkermes has made 30 contributions to Democratic and Republican lawmakers and to political action committees. All of those were between January of last year and the November election. The company has also hired lobbyists.

It's not clear, though, this early-stage political push has been persuasive. Marie Williams, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, says Vivitrol can be an effective treatment for some opioid abusers, but Tennessee doesn't prefer it to other therapies.

"What we want is for people to get avenues of treatment, and we are for any avenue that will help you get into recovery and stay in recovery," she says.

But, state officials add, drug courts are using Vivitrol more often.

And that's where many decisions about treatment are made.