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Q: I heard that, because of the national opioid crisis, the government is starting to regulate the use of these drugs in the human medical field. Do these new regulations affect veterinarians?

A: The sad truth is that opioid addiction and opioid related deaths have reached epidemic proportions nationwide. Due to the highly addictive qualities of these drugs, over the last two years, the government has added several new regulations to try to slow this epidemic.

Veterinarians are governed by the same regulations handed down by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) as MD’s and must comply with all these new regulations. Most people don’t realize that opioids are a huge part of a veterinarian’s pain management protocols for our patients and we use them daily in our practice including for anesthesia protocols.

The recently limited supply of opioids has significantly impacted our ability to treat pain. The new regulations make it even more difficult for veterinarians, as the now limited supply is preferentially sold to hospitals first and whatever is left is sold to veterinary distributors.

This means that we have had to be very creative in how we treat pain and we have started to use other types of medications other than opioids to treat animals. Luckily, there are alternatives that are just as affective—something that has made us think outside the “opioid box” so to speak.

The newer regulations also require extensive documentation, which has made the ordering and tracking of controlled substances labor intensive. This will push most veterinarians to prescribe all controlled substances through outside pharmacies to make their bookkeeping easier and to decrease their liability.

However, these regulations will significantly affect how we prescribe these medications in the future. The DEA recently hired 300 more agents to audit veterinary practices, making the risk of a DEA audit much more likely.

So yes, the very real and very scary opioid epidemic has resulted in a higher level of regulation in the prescribing of these drugs, which has greatly affected the practice of veterinary medicine.

Q: Why is veterinary medicine so expensive? It seems like it is more expensive than human medicine!

A: Sometimes taking your pet to the doctor can carry some sticker shock if you’re not prepared for the cost. The reality is that human medicine is significantly more expensive than veterinary care but since insurance covers most of the bill you do not see the real cost like you do when you go to the veterinarian.

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Veterinarians spend many years in school, are highly trained, and if your vet strives to practice gold standard medicine, their overhead is high in order to provide that level of care.

Although veterinary care is as good as human medicine, we cannot charge the prices that other medical professionals charge as we must make it affordable for our clients. So, we tend to under-charge and offer low cost services to get the animal the care it needs. This has led to many veterinarians working long hours with minimal pay and many veterinarians going out of business.

The average debt of a veterinarian coming out of school is between $100,000 and $150,000. The average annual salary for a newly graduated veterinarian is $65,000 - $75,000 making it nearly impossible to get out from under that debt.

The other issue is that veterinarians are asked daily to carry their client’s debt by providing payment plans. On average, 85% - 90% of clients that enter a payment plan will not pay their bill in full, which leads to monetary stress for the clinic.

My recommendations are to save money monthly for your pet’s veterinary care so you have those funds available when the time comes, and also to check into Care Credit (www.carecredit.com). This is a credit card that can be used specifically for veterinary care and provides a payment plan option. This planning can help take the stress off both you and your veterinarian and help you pay for any veterinary care your pet might need.

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Dr. Julianne Miller is a Flagstaff veterinarian. She can be reached at drmiller@canyonpet.com

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