Veterinarians challenge authority of AVMA Executive Board to make policy

Calls for change prompted by controversial revision to Veterinarian's Oath

June 16, 2011 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Fallout from a move by the American Veterinarian Medical Association’s (AVMA) top brass to alter the Veterinarian’s Oath will come to a head next month with debate on proposals to bridle the Executive Board’s absolute power to make such rulings. 

Eleven organizations within the House of Delegates — a federation of 68 state, territorial and allied veterinary medical groups charged with driving AVMA policy — are proposing amendments to the AVMA Bylaws that, in differing ways, ensure that delegates will be consulted on future revisions to the Veterinarian’s Oath.  

First adopted by the AVMA House of Delegates in 1954, the Veterinarian’s Oath is a pledge recited by thousands of new graduates each year as they embark on careers in veterinary medicine. Last November, the 16-member Executive Board added four words to the oath pertaining to animal welfare. Though the new language was slightly controversial — some veterinarians believe that the term “animal welfare” is akin to “animal rights” — most who criticized the move viewed it as verification that major decisions at the AVMA are made in a vacuum.

Following news of the change, practitioners aired discontent on the Veterinary Information Network, an online professional community. Bottom line: AVMA members want a seat at the table, and that includes House delegates. 

“There were a number of people in the House who felt that something as significant as the oath should be reviewed by both the House and the Executive Board,” says Dr. Stephen Shores, an alternate delegate representing Florida. “We’re all in favor of animal welfare, but it would be in everybody’s best interest if changes to the oath were reviewed by representation from the entire AVMA network. A big complaint against the AVMA is that we don’t allow members to have enough input.” 

The House of Delegates meets every January and July and is listed as the principle policy-making body in the AVMA, with representatives from every state and 16 allied organizations. Each of those organizations is responsible for selecting their delegate representatives, though their means for doing so may differ. For example, leaders with the California Veterinary Medical Association appoint delegates to the AVMA while delegates representing Florida are elected by the Florida Veterinary Medical Association’s general membership.

Federal and state regulatory bodies send delegates to the House, but they do not have a voting role in AVMA actions. Members of the House of Delegates serve four-year terms, though many are re-elected.

By contrast, members of the Executive Board serve for six years in office and meet six times annually, carrying the administrative weight of the national association. Its 16 members are comprised of the AVMA president, present elect, immediate past president, vice president, treasurer and one representative from each of the AVMA's 11 geographic districts. AVMA members elect the 11 district representatives for the Executive Board, but voting for presidential and treasury seats go to the House of Delegates, not the general membership. Along with the Executive Board’s administrative duties, it also has policy-making responsibilities — a role that at times has led to actions that have left House members and others feeling disenfranchised. 

In response, three proposed changes to how the AVMA functions will be laid out for the House to review and vote on during its annual summer meeting, July 14 to 15 in St. Louis. 

Proposed Bylaws Amendment 10 seeks to strip the Executive Board of its power to tinker with the oath without oversight from delegates by adding, “approve all changes to the Veterinarian’s Oath” to the duties formally assigned to the House. As it now stands, the AVMA Council on Veterinary Service reviews the oath every five years and sends any proposed changes to the Executive Board for its consideration. 

Ten states have united to propose Bylaws Amendment 10. “The House of Delegates authored the original oath and it should be the body to approve any further revisions," the proposed amendment says, " ... our constituents should have an opportunity to review any proposed changes in a direct dialogue with their delegate."

The other two proposed bylaws amendments, however, are broader in scope. Both hint at an age-old power struggle between the Executive Board and the House that’s been “festering for a long time,” says Dr. Stewart “Chip” Beckett, AVMA delegate representing Connecticut.

“There are real questions whether the House of Delegates functionally should exist in 2011,” Beckett says, asserting that allowing the Executive Board to make policy decisions without the House’s input sends a mixed message. 

“If we’re going to represent the membership, we should do that,” he says. “If not, let’s save the AVMA a lot of money and time and end all this. I share this concern with a lot of other members of the House of Delegates.”

Beckett, who’s served six years in the House, explains that the current AVMA governance structure allows new and altered policies to be developed by councils, task forces and committees, which send their recommendations to the Executive Board for consideration. “It seems like the House is bypassed often because the reports go to the Executive Board,” he says. “We’re not consulted, and that’s not healthy for anyone.” 

He adds: “Everyone’s excited about the oath, but an organization that’s forward thinking should be trying to not have this problem again. I think we need a more substantive change in the way we do business.”

To change the system, the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association submitted Proposed Bylaws Amendment 12, which strikes language that allows the Executive Board to act on behalf of the House when it’s not in session. The amended version demands that, “All policies that are changed regarding matters of veterinary medicine will be considered interim policies until the close of the next House of Delegates session.” If the House doesn’t vote against the policy, it’s adopted. 

Proposed Bylaws Amendment 11, submitted by the Utah Veterinary Medical Association, reads much like Connecticut’s version, nixing the language that permits the Executive Board to act on policies in the House's absence. It, too, proposes a directive that would force the Executive Board to consult House members on all policy changes concerning matters relating to veterinary medicine.

The background statement on the amendment 11 implores the AVMA leadership to act in a more democratized manner. 

“We should be more than a large, expensive club and do whatever it takes to respond to our change in the bylaws for our constituents," the proposed bylaws amendment says. "We are the American Veterinary Medical Association. All our constituents voices need to be represented and heard on any major policy that may concern them.”

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