Lawmakers, staff and other workers inside the The Alaska State Capitol are preparing this week for the upcoming session of the Alaska State Legislature that starts Jan. 17, including the release of the first round of prefile bills published Monday by the Legislative Affairs Agency. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Lawmakers, staff and other workers inside the The Alaska State Capitol are preparing this week for the upcoming session of the Alaska State Legislature that starts Jan. 17, including the release of the first round of prefile bills published Monday by the Legislative Affairs Agency. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Ruffridge bill would exempt veterinarians from opioid reporting program

The bill cleared the Alaska Senate last session

A bill in the Alaska Legislature sponsored by Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, would exempt Alaska veterinarians from having to participate in the state’s prescription drug monitoring program.

That program, to which weekly reporting by providers became mandatory in 2017, monitors the prescription of Schedule II-IV controlled substances in Alaska with the goal of improving patient care and to reduce the misuse and abuse of controlled substances.

Per the U.S. Department of Justice, Schedule II controlled substances are those that have a high potential for abuse, such as morphine, oxycodone and codeine. Schedule III controlled substances have less potential for abuse but may lead to dependance and Schedule IV substances have a low potential for abuse relative to Schedule II and III substances.

Ruffridge, who co-owns Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, said Tuesday that he first encountered the problem addressed by the bill, H.B. 56, when he served on the Alaska Board of Pharmacy and that it has previously been brought forth by Alaska lawmakers. The bill cleared the Alaska Senate last session and he hopes to get it across the finish line this year.

Alaska State Statute requires pharmacists who dispense and practitioners who prescribe schedules II, III and IV to register with the state’s controlled substance prescription database, which is established in the Alaska Board of Pharmacy.

Among other things, database entries must include the name of the person prescribing, the date the prescription was filled, the quantity and strength of the substance being dispensed and the name of the drug outlet dispensing the controlled substance. The bill would exempt Alaska’s veterinarians from having to participate in that program.

Ruffridge said the bill is meant to address three problems.

The first is patient privacy. When a veterinarian prescribes a controlled substance for an animal they are treating, Alaska’s prescription drug monitoring program shows providers whether or not the pet’s owner has ever been prescribed a controlled substance. The feature of the program, Ruffridge said, is a privacy concern for pet owners and one most don’t know about.

“Your personal medical information is there and, by mandate, required to be looked at by vets,” Ruffridge said.

Another problem vets run into with the program, Ruffridge said, is that it was not designed with animals in mind. For example, while a veterinarian may be able to input a pet’s name and date of birth, there isn’t a place to indicate “species” or other animal-specific fields. The resulting data created by the program, he said, is sometimes unusable.

Ruffridge said historic wariness of the bill has come from lawmakers worried about creating a loophole through which people with substance use disorders could obtain controlled substances and not end up in the state database.

However, Ruffridge noted that less than 0.3% of all opioid prescriptions come from veterinarians. In most cases, the controlled substance being prescribed is phenobarbital, a medication commonly used to treat seizures in pets. Though not a narcotic, the medication is a scheduled substance under the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“(Veterinarians) really are a limited, if at all, user of narcotics,” he said.

Seven other state representatives have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill, including Rep. Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks, who worked for a lawmaker last year that carried the bill, and Rep. Mike Prax, R-North Pole, who co-sponsored the bill last session.

The trend of exempting veterinarians from prescription drug monitoring programs is one playing out around the country, Ruffridge said. Of the more than 34 U.S. states that have implemented a prescription drug monitoring program, 10 states that formerly required veterinarians to participate in the program no longer do so.

Ruffridge said he’s planning additional work on the prescription drug monitoring program while in Juneau, in a way that makes it more applicable to opioid addiction in Alaska. He noted that the program does not, for example, track substances like fentanyl and heroin, which are Schedule I controlled substances under the DEA.

“I think the PDMP is a great tool and I want that tool to be able to be used and have some more effect on helping the opioid crisis,” Ruffridge said.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Reps. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau; Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks; Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla; Alyse Galvin, NA-Anchorage; Donna Mears, D-Anchorage; Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage; and Calvin Schrage, NA-Anchorage. The bill on Friday was referred to the House Health & Social Services Committee. A similar bill has been introduced in the Alaska Senate by Sen. Löki Tobin to which Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, has signed on as a cosponsor

More information on H.B. 56 can be found on the Alaska Legislature’s website at akleg.gov.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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