Veterinary Visits In Maine Just Got Complicated…

Veterinary Visits In Maine Just Got Complicated…

Like nearly every state, Maine is dealing with an opiate and heroin epidemic. In 2015, Maine experienced 272 overdose related fatalities. In January 2017 one of Maine’s media outlets, WMTW, did an outstanding feature entitled Goodnight moon, goodnight mum,’ ‘Chronicle’ investigates Maine’s heroin epidemic. Anchor David Charns did a phenomenal job detailing the pain and heartache of addiction through a series of interviews and videos including one with Oxford County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Matthew Baker Sergeant  who, moments after arriving home from work in February 2015, discovered his 23-year-old daughter Ronni near death in the upstairs bathroom. Despite CPR from her father and several doses of Narcan by paramedics, she died, leaving behind an 11 month old daughter Claire. Ronni’s daughter, now 2, lives with her grandparents and is the source behind the name of the WMTW article:

When Claire asks for her mother, she and her grandfather look up, past that second-floor bathroom, to the sky. “I’ve always told her that that full moon is mum,” Baker said. “We go outside, and she says, ‘Goodnight moon and goodnight mum.'”

In an effort to combat the Maine opiate epidemic, the Maine Legislature enacted Public Law 488 which became effective January 1, 2017. PL488 affects nearly all facets of healthcare except in this law, veterinarians are included. I didn’t have all the exact data on PL488 so reached out to my State Senator, Thomas Saviello. I must tell you, he is the only government official to respond during the two weeks I called and emailed various agencies, elected officials  including the State House. Sad indictment against them but a huge kudos for Senator Saviello. 

What I do know about PL488 and it’s impact on veterinarians is such. If an owner takes their pet to be seen and the veterinarian feels it necessary to prescribe a narcotic or benzodiazepine for your pet, they must first do a check on the owner with DHHS to determine if the owner is on a controlled substance. As I previously mentioned I still need to clarify the parameters but the fact that a veterinarian or perhaps his staff has the power to access a person’s prescriptions is a huge HIPAA violation. But I digress. Let’s use a hypothetical situation. Owner has an anxiety disorder for which he takes Valium on a daily
basis. He also has a severe back issue (long-term) so is on hydrocodone for pain control. His cat is hit by a car and taken to the vet where she undergoes successful emergency surgery but because her injuries are severe, the vet prescribes a pain medication; hydrocodone. Would the fact that the owner is on hydrocodone prohibit the vet from prescribing it for the cat’s postoperative pain? If so, would he be allowed to prescribe a different pain medication such as tramadol which also falls in the opiate category? Is
he is prohibited from prescribing any narcotic because the owner is on two (2)?  Or is it only if the owner is on the same drug? If his prescriptive powers are limited
because the owner is on a controlled substance, what criteria is used to determine if the animal can or cannot get a prescription?

Whilst I understand the opiate epidemic our country is tackling, how can a veterinarian or
anyone for that matter be absolutely certain that a person who is taking several controlled drugs is abusing or trafficking? Plus the thought that an innocent animal might have to suffer needlessly because his owner is on a controlled substance is not only abhorrent but
inhumane.  I want to know if it’s possible for the check to be done during non-business hours when DHHS is closed. Does the veterinarian’s office have to speak directly to a DHHS employee or is the information accessible online? And if it is accessible online, how can we, the human patient, be assured it’s secure? If the drug check on the owner can’t be done when DHHS is closed, then what happens to the animal who is in pain?  Any pet owner knows that many accidents happen at night, weekends or holidays when government agencies like DHHS are closed; what then?  Going back to HIPAA, who has authority within the veterinary practice to request the DHHS information? Can a receptionist do it? A vet tech? Or only the veterinarian? Finally, I do not understand how PL488, a state law, can override HIPAA, a federal law enacted in 1996 by Congress and signed into effect by then President Bill Clinton. Under HIPAA an individual’s medical and other health information including prescriptions, is private and protected. The Privacy Law sets limits on who can look at and receive our health information such as covered entities and their business associates. As a nurse and former Union representative I am extremely familiar with HIPAA. In light of PL488 however I reviewed it once again and no where did I find where veterinarians, veterinary technicians, or veterinary employees of any type are entitled to our records in any form. Additionally, PL488 is in essence requiring veterinarians to understand human medication dosages compared to animals which often differ greatly.hipaa_violations_by_type_-_pie_chart

I chose a veterinary team for my German Shepherd based on their reputations and expertise in animal physiology, not human. I value all members of her team despite being in different practices because of their knowledge. Having said that, I expect they keep current with the newest modalities of treatment for my dog. They work long hours yet now the State of Maine expects them to undertake additional training in order to understand and monitor the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP)?  A program historically used only for humans?

This is ludicrous. There has to be a middle ground, a way the government, human healthcare providers and law enforcement can work together in an effort to reduce the rampant drug abuse without violating a persons rights or including veterinarians where there is potential for an animal to suffer because “something” raises a red flag when in reality it could be legitimate.

Once I have all the specifics, I’ll revisit this in a future post.

funny-dog-pictures-your-dog-has-a-tummyache

Discrimination Against Chronic Pain Sufferers…

Discrimination Against Chronic Pain Sufferers…

In September 2016 I posted about Chronic Pain & Pills… and the difficulty a family member was having. He is 73 and retired after 47 years of steady and often physically challenging employment. He was a tractor-trailer driver for 40 of his 47 years in the work force so essentially sat in the cab of the truck for over 10 hours a day. He began feeling ill in 1991 but typical for him wouldn’t take off work to see a doctor until I finally insisted. His PCP at the time diagnosed him with fatigue. Hmmmm. As a nurse,  the diagnosis of fatigue didn’t sit well with me so once again I insisted he seek a second opinion. This doctor ordered basic blood work and when it came back within normal limits, he also diagnosed him with fatigue. Again my professional experience kicked in and I instinctively felt they were both wrong; it was more than fatigue but I didn’t know what or whom to turn to.

One night while working at the hospital I saw a pamphlet about Lyme Disease which was still somewhat new in 1992. I remember looking at it and with each paragraph my mouth fell open a bit more. It specifically described the symptoms and the discomfort he’d been experiencing since the previous summer. More telling however was the photograph of the classic red rash; a red ring surrounding a clear area and a red center. I remembered he’d been bitten by a tick the summer of 1991 and developed an identical rash. Small at first, it enlarged in size over days/weeks until it was approximately 6” in diameter. It lasted for at least a month and always felt warm. I realized that I might have found the answer to his lingering illness so made an appointment with an ID (infectious disease) specialist  in  Philadelphia. After a comprehensive examination and specific blood tests, she diagnosed him with Stage 3 ( late disseminated) Lyme disease. He was hospitalized in ICU and after several days transferred to a medical floor for nearly a week. He had port implanted in his chest  prior to discharge and once home, received IV antibiotics for several weeks through it.  Finally after what seemed like an eternity he began to feel better. Unfortunately, Stage 3 Lyme Disease can cause long-term joint inflammation (Lyme arthritis) usually in the knees along with a host of other complications, many which continue to resurface years later. He developed severe arthritis in his knees which the ID specialist thought was probably made worse by his profession ~ driving for long hours all week. He also developed arthritis in his hands, specifically in his fingers. It hurt his hands to try to grip things and he often dropped them. As a  driver he often had to unload freight. I  remember he developed callouses on his inner wrists. When I asked what caused them, he said he was unable to unload the freight by hand so picked the boxes up using his wrists. Yet not once did he complain.  His dedication and strong work ethic was beyond reproach.

Shortly after moving to Maine he started seeing a  a rheumatologist for his arthritis. He began receiving injections to his knees which initially worked very well but as the years passed the effect of the injections didn’t last as long. He was still working so his knees were bent every day and he was frequently unloading freight by his wrists. His rheumatologist prescribed Vicodin which he only took on the weekend and even then, only if he couldn’t stand the pain. When he retired at age 66, he was finally able to live the kind of life most of us take for granted. He had the freedom to watch the news on television, walk the dog, drive to the store, sleep in a regular bed, make toast and a cup of tea in the kitchen. All those little everyday things that he wasn’t able to do for 40 years while living in a truck. Yet even with these  lifestyle changes, his knees and hands continued to hurt and were steadily worsening. He had the Vicodin prescriptions filled every month even if he had leftovers from the previous month because he didn’t want the doctor to think  he didn’t need them. They were prescribed  four times daily as needed but rarely did he take more than one or two a day and some days none at all. 

He went to the rheumatologist for his routine appointment in March 2016 and upon arrival  was told they needed a urine sample.  Upon leaving he was given a paper saying that in the future he had to bring his Vicodin bottle with him. That was new but given all the drug related issues in society not surprising. In the beginning of April  the doctor’s office called to say the test didn’t indicate enough Vicodin in his system so it would no longer be prescribed for him. Dumbfounded doesn’t even come close to describing my reaction. He were glad he had leftover pills because when the Vicodin was stopped nothing else was prescribed. He didn’t see the rheumatologist until August so he would have been in horrible pain for five months. During the August visit the doctor said that he wasn’t allowed to prescribe Vicodin based on the urine test, that it wasn’t his policy but rather that of the hospital whose umbrella he was under. He added that the hospital was working with the state to decrease narcotic prescriptions. He prescribed a different medication which is completely ineffective against the severity of his pain.

It pains me to watch him struggle to get up from a chair or  limp when he walks. My heart aches as I see him wince in pain when trying to open a jar. Now is the time he should be enjoying his life but because of chronic pain he is doing anything but. He wants very much to go to Tennessee this summer to visit his family but is worried that his arthritis will affect him; that he won’t be able to participate in  simple activities with his grandchildren due to his pain level. Every week I read of more drug related arrests and indictments in our small rural community. Many are for trafficking which simply amazes me. Where do they get the drugs? If a 73-year-old man with arthritis so severe and painful that it’s adversely affecting his life can’t get a prescription, where are these people getting them? I asked his PCP about it but he said he doesn’t prescribe for a patient who’s been “cut off” by another provider.

As to the medical center’s across the board policy, I have to wonder if it ever crossed their minds that not every person with chronic pain is a potential trafficker? That not every senior citizen is supplementing their income by selling some of their pain pills? Why do doctors automatically assume that everyone who complains of severe, chronic pain has nefarious motives? What gives them the right to play God with a person’s health and welfare? A person who has been their patient for 15 years? Yet because of a prejudicial policy, he suffers each and every day, his quality of life so impaired that he is often unable to enjoy his days.

The same thing applies to the state. In April 2016 over two-thirds of the Maine legislature voted to override two harm reduction bills vetoed by Governor Paul LePage ~ LD1552, a bill that would provide public funding for syringe exchange and expand syringe access, and LD 1547, legislation to allow access to the life saving overdose antidote Narcan (naloxone) without a prescription, something Governor  LePage vehemently objected to. During a town meeting in Damariscotta last year LePage said:

“There comes a point in time where who is responsible for who. You know a shot of Narcan is $70 and the person who gets it doesn’t have to pay it back.”

So a state whose governor publicly implies that a human life is not worth $70 is the same state establishing narcotic prescribing guidelines?

With no doctor to help and pain that is severely impacting his life, my family member has decided to try medical marijuana  because it’s legal in Maine. As I researched cannabis I was surprised because it’s definitely a profitable business. You make an initial appointment with  a doctor who is certified by the state to prescribe medical marijuana . Upon completion of the appointment, providing your medical condition is one that qualifies,  you will be issued a Medical Marijuana Card (usually tamper proof). The first visit ranges from $150 to $300 and the annual recertification is about $50 less. Then there is the cost of the actual cannabis which can be approximately $300 a month.  My family member doesn’t want to smoke so will try a concentrate that he can add to a cup of tea. And of course insurance doesn’t cover any of the costs whereas a prescription of Vicodin is $10.

So let’s recap. A senior citizen with a long, well documented history of Lyme Disease and arthritis. Retired after 47 years in the workforce, 40 of them as a tractor-trailer driver. No history of drug or alcohol abuse. He didn’t take Vicodin four times daily because he didn’t want to develop a dependency plus  the prescription said “as needed”. Yet for not taking them when he didn’t need them or was driving, the hospital’s inane and unjust policy is forcing him to turn to an alternative source in an attempt to obtain some degree of pain relief. In doing so, he’ll be spending several hundred dollars a month of his limited retirement income; money that he could spend on enjoying his life instead.

Maine, like every other state, is seeing the tragedy of the nation’s prescription opioid and heroin epidemic but it is also seeing an increase in people with chronic pain, especially as  baby boomers age. Chronic pain now affects more than a third of Americans yet as I have discovered, getting help from your physician, no matter how many years you’ve been a patient, is often impossible.

I will never go to this hospital for a procedure  because of this experience. And should I develop a condition which causes me chronic pain, I’ll definitely seek help elsewhere because no one should be made to arbitrarily suffer like my family member; to have his treatment altered based on not taking as many pain pills as they think he should but rather, as prescribed. To be judged on the results of a single urine test as opposed to a long documented medial history and 15 years.

What a sad indictment against the medical profession. When did it lose humanity and compassion?