Maker of Vivitrol Lobbies To Influence Legislation on Medication-Assisted Treatment

By Kelly Burch 06/13/17

Alkermes is pushing hard to smother treatment options like Suboxone and methadone to make way for Vivitrol's rise.

Doctor readying an injection for a patient.

The makers of Vivitrol, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, have systematically lobbied lawmakers around the country in order to promote legislation that increases sales of Vivitrol while decreasing the use of methadone and buprenorphine, two other drugs used in medication-assisted therapy, according to an NPR investigation

The maker of Vivitrol, Alkermes, “is open about its basic strategy—influencing legislators and officials to increase sales of Vivitrol,” according to the report. 

In order to market Vivitrol, NPR alleges that Alkermes took advantage of the skepticism over two medications commonly used to treat opioid addiction: methadone and buprenorphine (sold as Suboxone). Both of these medications activate opioid receptors, fully or partially replacing the effects of the opioid that a person is addicted to. Because these medications are themselves opioids that have street value, there has been much debate over whether they have a place in treating addiction. They have become some of the most tightly controlled medications in the nation.  

Vivitrol is not an opioid, and it acts by blocking opioid receptors in the brain rather than activating them. Because the drug has no street value or risk of abuse, it is more appealing to policymakers and law-enforcement officials who are skeptical of using opioid medications to treat opioid addiction.

Lobbyists for Alkermes have leveraged this skepticism to promote their own product. "In a number of states, there has been a significant push by Alkermes and their lobbyists to really squelch other treatment, so that they can get access to bigger markets for their drug," Dr. Corey Waller, an addiction specialist who heads legislative advocacy for the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told NPR. 

Dr. Andy Chambers, an addiction psychiatrist in Indianapolis, said Alkermes acts as if methadone and buprenorphine are competitors, when the drugs are meant for different types of patients. 

"That's really an unfortunate dynamic," he says. "They're not designed to do the same thing. It's like comparing apples and oranges.”

Despite that, Alkermes’ campaigns have been successful. In 2010 the company spent less than $200,000 on federal lobbying; in 2016 they spent $4.4 million, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. The company was also active in state and local campaigns. 

"We have an entire team of people fanned out across the country working from coast to coast with state and local government officials," Jeff Harris, the company's government affairs director, said at an investor event in September 2016.

That investment has paid off. In 2016, sales of Vivitrol were $209 million, a marked increase from $30 million in sales in 2011. Alkermes projects sales could reach $1 billion by 2021.

Alarmingly, the company has worked its way directly into laws regulating medication-assisted treatment and responses to the opioid epidemic. NPR found that the word "Vivitrol" or variations of phrases that refer to Vivitrol appear in more than 70 bills and laws in 15 states.

For many addiction professionals, that is a startling sign. “I think anyone who's willing to put somebody's advertisement in legislation should be ashamed of themselves," Waller said.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.