'Intervention' Trades Free Treatment for Addicts' Stories

The cost of rehab discourages many addicts to get well. A TV show changes that.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 9:52 AM

Jan. 14, 2008 — -- While filming drug and alcohol addicts at their weakest moments -- while they shoot up heroin or down liters of liquor -- has turned the show "Intervention" into a TV phenomenon, it has also made cable channel A&E the target of complaints that the show is exploitive.

But addiction specialists tell ABCNEWS.com that offering addicts complimentary treatment in return for their stories, as A&E does for "Intervention," could make a huge difference in their chances of recovery.

The makers of "Intervention" record hours of footage of bingeing crack addicts and drunks spiraling out-of-control before eventually organizing a family-led intervention and a 90-day stay at a rehabilitation center -- all for free.

In one "Intervention" episode, cameras roll as "Ryan," a young drummer addicted to OxyContin, shoots up as many as 15 times a day. And then there's "Betsy," who drinks up to five bottles of white wine a day, despite already having gone to detox several times.

Other episodes depict a a former high school valedictorian spending her days betting at the racetrack to support her Vicodin habit; a former child preacher tells how being molested by a male friend caused him to turn to meth, and he now smokes meth in his bedroom while his mom sings religious songs downstairs; and a crack-addict smokes up in the parking lot of the rehab facility he's about to enter.

It makes for addictive TV, but what would compel any family to air such raw, ugly dysfunction?

"[Families] turn to us not only for financial help but to get emotional help, and to understand how to get better," said Sam Mettler, the creator and executive producer of "Intervention." "But treatment centers are very expensive, and the average American can't afford it."

"It takes a tremendous amount of courage for a family to put their life's horror on camera," he said. "But they've been living a nightmare for years and don't know what to do."

Health professionals agree that one of the biggest barriers preventing drug addicts from receiving treatment is the cost. Stays at in-patient treatment centers like the ones that appear on "Intervention" can range from $12,000 to more than $50,000 per month-long stay -- a cost that can be prohibitive.

"It's not that we don't know how to treat the illness, it's that people don't have the financial resources available to them get treatment that works," said Michael Miller, president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Though Miller and other addiction experts declined to speak specifically about "Intervention," most agreed access to free rehab could be crucial to the recovery of addicts who can't afford to pay for help themselves, and whose insurance plans often don't even cover the kind of medical attention they need

"When [addicts] notice their insurance doesn't cover addiction treatment very well or at all, then they just don't get the treatment," Miller said.