Researchers hope a drug that helps prevent relapse will have success.
"When I was growing up, I got in basically with the wrong crowd," said Denise Finneran, 51. It led to a lifelong addiction to prescription drugs like Oxycontin. "I just started using and abusing opiate drugs when I was about 17. It started off with pharmaceutical medications like Dilaudid and morphine."
Rehab. Detox. Nothing worked for Finneran. But when Denise checked into the Tarzana Treatment Center a few years ago, it would be for the last time. She was given a medication called Vivitrol that she says finally helped release her from the grip of opioid painkillers.
"It helps with the cravings, definitely. For some reason it did," said Finneran.
There are other treatments, like methadone, used to treat addiction to opioids. But Vivitrol works differently from them.
"Medication like Vivitrol blocks the receptor that would otherwise let heroin and oxycodone do its work, and then you can't really get the euphoria, the high, the sedation, whatever it was that the drug effect you were used to," said New York University's Dr. Joshua Lee.
Prescription drug abuse in Los Angeles County is prompting health officials to look at opioid addiction in a new light.
Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, believes it can be treated as a chronic brain disorder.
"All addiction is a brain disease," said Fielding. "I mean, we talk about heart disease or kidney disease or lung disease, we need to think about this as a brain disease just like, quote, 'mental illnesses.'"
Vivitrol is an injectable extended-release form of the drug naltrexone. It's prescribed to help prevent relapse.
In an FDA trial, 36 percent of Vivitrol patients stayed in treatment for six months without relapsing, compared to 23 percent in the placebo group.
To break the addiction cycle, researchers recommend staying on Vivitrol for about six to 12 months. But if the severe cravings continue, experts say you can stay on it indefinitely. But it is expensive.
"Obviously cost is one factor in making that decision," said Dr. Ken Bachrach, Tarzana Treatment Center clinical director.
Just one treatment using Vivitrol can run up to $1,500 a month. But in the long run, Bachrach believes using medication to assist rehabilitation efforts will eventually save society money.
"What would be the cost of relapsing again? And everyone has to look at that," said Bachrach.
Three years after her six-month treatment, Denise Finneran is drug-free. In fact, she now works at the treatment center. And while she believes counseling and support were crucial for her recovery, she says Vivitrol gave her the safety net to succeed.