November 05, 2018 07:56 PM
Microchips that are commonly used to reunite lost cats and dogs with their owners may be put to use for an entirely different purpose: stopping drug addicts from targeting vet clinics.
Earlier this year, two veterinarians north of the Twin Cities designed a system where doctors can scan a microchip implanted into a pet to determine whether another doctor recently prescribed powerful painkillers for the animal.
"We need to do something. There's a problem," said Dr. Jennifer Schurrer, who worked on the program with colleague, Dr. Mary Olson at East Central Veterinarians in Cambridge, Minnesota.
The problem is vets across the state are not able to effectively use the state's Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), an online system that doctors can access to see if a patient is doctor shopping to feed an addiction to opioids.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS showed in its investigation Sunday night how an addict used her dog to obtain more than five thousands pills from vets in Dakota County. It took nearly a year before anyone stopped her.
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"I would go back to the same vet clinic, with the same dog with a different name and they wouldn't know," said Shannon Toomey, who told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she first became addicted to opioids in 2003 following an injury.
When she no longer could obtain pain meds from her doctors, she started fooling vet clinics, using her three dogs by claiming they were in pain.
At times, she even changed the names of her dogs so nobody would get suspicious.
"I was lying, not fooling," she said. "I was 100 percent lying to them and it worked. At the time, I was like, this is my little secret. You know, as an addict, I was like 'This is a gold mine.'"
Under the program that is currently being tested by veterinarians, doctors would immediately recognize if a pet is being used as a way for the owner to obtain painkillers.
"We are feeling a lot of enthusiasm by the veterinarians," Olson said. "And if this works, and everyone gets on board, then we certainly question whether there needs to be a law."
The head of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Julia Wilson, said it is taking an "education approach" for its members. One of the issues is animal records in Minnesota are considered private and are protected under HIPAA-type laws, just like medical records for humans.
"If I suspect someone, I can't call the next practice and say 'Hey, this client was here and I'm a little worried they kept wanting Tramadol,'" said Dr. Wilson.
Using microchips to track prescriptions is a different approach than what lawmakers previously tried. Last session, a bill failed that would allow vets to look-up the owners of the pets in the PMP.
The designers of the new program tell 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that they still face several hurdles, but they hope to present it to officials in a matter of months.