N.H. veterinarians asked to ensure owners don’t take pet pain drugs 

  • Jonathan Van Fleet—

Monitor staff
Published: 4/8/2016 7:03:29 PM

With New Hampshire’s heroin and opioid crisis in full swing, the blame often falls to prescription pain medication, over-prescribing and diversion.

But not all prescription pain medication comes from health care providers who see human patients. Prescription pain medication from the state’s veterinary clinics also gets abused, according to law enforcement officials.

“I can speak of this anecdotally, certainly in my position at the attorney general’s office as head of the drug prosecution unit, we have seen people diverting their pets’ drugs,” said James Vara, the new Governor’s Advisor on Addiction and Behavioral Health, as he testified at a public hearing Wednesday on opioid prescribing practices.

While pet diversion is more rare than people selling prescription opioids from their own doctor or stealing someone else’s medication, law enforcement officials say it does happen.

As New Hampshire’s boards of medicine, dentistry and podiatry draft new rules for opioid prescribing, they are joined by the New Hampshire Veterinary Medical Association, which is finding itself in a new position of trying to make sure pet owners aren’t diverting their pets’ prescription pain medication.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Vara said he thought it was important to include the state veterinary board in any discussions about prescribing practices.

“Obviously, we have patients being (pets), who are not given these medications, that are being diverted by the owners or caregivers,” he said.

Veterinarians also testified at Wednesday’s meeting, saying they wanted to make sure they are protecting against diversion while also not infringing on pet owner’s privacy.

“It is a large concern and we don’t want to be part of this problem,” said Suzan Watkins, an Allenstown veterinarian who also serves on the legislative committee of the New Hampshire Veterinary Medical Association.

The health care privacy issue is a bit blurrier when it comes to veterinary medicine. Because vets are dealing with animal patients, they are not subject to the same HIPAA privacy laws as are providers who care for humans.

But under new legislation, veterinarians would be required to check the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database regularly, which includes information on pet owners.

Bill language currently states that vets can check the prescription drug monitoring program, where the pet’s legal owner will be listed if opioids are being prescribed to the animal.

But oftentimes, any family member could be bringing their pet in to the vet or picking them up after a surgery, said Jane Barlow Roy, former president of the veterinary association.

“It adds confusion as to who we’re looking up on the PDMP, who we should be concerned with,” Barlow Roy said, adding, “We’re all working together to iron things out.”

Barlow Roy said the association is working with the attorney general’s office and state lawmakers to try to establish “more of a black and white, cut and dry legal owner . . . so we don’t open up that Pandora’s box of looking up multiple people in a household.”

While Barlow Roy said she’s never experienced a pet owner diverting pain medication during her 10 years as a vet, “I’m sure it happens.”

She said she has gotten calls in the past from people who aren’t regular clients, asking their pets be seen immediately and asking for pain medication.

“Sometimes you get a gut feeling that something’s not right,” Barlow Roy said. If that happens, she’ll offer to prescribe an animal pain pills that aren’t a narcotic or just send the animal home with a few pills.

Pets getting out of surgery are sent home with no more than two days worth of a schedule II opioid, Watkins said. The problem comes more often with older pets with chronic pain, which may require a long-term prescription.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to be contributing to this problem in a significant way by prescribing a couple days’ worth,” Watkins said. “We know our owners, and certainly no one is going to bring their animal in for surgery so they can get two days worth of an opioid, that’s not going to happen.”

Watkins said she doesn’t personally believe veterinarians should have to query the PDMP database in these short-term situations.

“I think the privacy rights of the owner outweigh the risk in that case,” she said.

However, she thinks there may need to be more checks done on pet owners who are getting larger amounts of prescription narcotics.

“We’re not trying to cause a problem, we’re trying to make people aware that we’re trying to work with the AG’s office,” said Barlow Roy. “We’re trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322 or enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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