AVMA: Fairness to Pet Owners Act ‘dead’

Veterinarians urged to weigh in on drug distribution with FTC

August 9, 2012 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The battle between much of the veterinary profession and mega-chain Wal-Mart has quieted — for now.  

HR 1406, titled The Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011, is “dead,” said Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) Governmental Relations Division in Washington. The bill — supported by Wal-Mart and other retailers vying for a piece of the pet prescriptions market — sits in a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Practitioners have sent hundreds letters to lawmakers in opposition, stating that the bill is confusing, cumbersome and unnecessarily questions the integrity of veterinarians.

Lutschaunig proclaimed the demise of HR 1406 last week during the AVMA House of Delegates meeting in San Diego. In an interview with the VIN News Service, he expanded on the statement.  

“At this point in the 112th Congress, it is unlikely that HR 1406 will move,” he said by email. “It has limited support (only five cosponsors in the House), the Health Subcommittee is not interested in marking the bill up, and there is no Senate version. Once the 112th Congress adjourns, every bill that has not been passed dies only to start the process over again in the 113th Congress. We’ll continue to monitor this bill as we finish out the 112th Congress, and watch for it in the 113th Congress.” 

Lawmakers headed home Aug. 2 for a five-week break. Upon returning to Washington in September, the House of Representatives is scheduled to work another eight or nine days before the Nov. 6 presidential election. During that time, they're likely to be occupied with revising the farm bill, which expires Sept. 30. After the election, Congress will gather for another few weeks until the 2011-2012 session ends on Jan. 3, 2013. The 113th Congress convenes the same day.  

"We still want AVMA members to be engaged in the process and let their members of Congress know how they feel about this legislation," Lutschaunig said. "This would help us as we finish out this Congress and start the 113th Congress in January."

Introduced in April 2011 by Rep. James Matheson, HR 1406 requires veterinarians to issue prescriptions to clients, enabling pet owners to bargain hunt in pharmacies for their pet medications. The bill stipulates that veterinarians may not refuse to write a prescription or charge a fee for it. 

The AVMA argues that scripting out when a client asks already is common practice despite the fact that veterinarians often rely on in-house pharmacy sales to offset the costs of medical care. According to the national association, veterinarians are ethically and, in some states, legally obligated to provide owners a written prescription when asked.  

In April, the AVMA posted a video on YouTube. The skit highlights what the bill's opponents call a "redundant" and "ridiculous" amount of bureaucracy and red tape.

Wal-Mart and other supporters of the legislation want legal assurance that owners may have the ability to shop outside of veterinary practices for pet medications. Consumers should have a choice, especially when their pets need antibiotics, insulins and other human drugs, said Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez in an interview last October with the VIN News Service.

Lopez could not be reached concerning the bill's status in Congress. A phone call made Wednesday to Alyson Heyrend, Matheson's press secretary, was not returned.  

Supporters of HR 1406 might not need the bill to pass to further publicize their stance. On Oct. 2, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) plans to hold a workshop to field how pet medications are distributed in the United States and explore whether competition and consumer choice are being stifled by current business practices.  

The FTC, charged with identifying anti-competitive business practices, was prompted to weigh in on veterinary prescriptions because language in HR 1406 asks the agency to promulgate rules for their sale and distribution. Written comment from stakeholders is being solicited.

The AVMA is expected to have a presence at the meeting. "We are highly encouraging all veterinarians to submit written comments to the FTC's questions," Lutschaunig said.

Matheson’s records on MapLight, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, shows that Wal-Mart contributed at least $51,000 to the congressman during the past decade via its political action commitee, or PAC.  

The AVMA, by contrast, contributed $2,000 in PAC funds to Matheson's campaign during the 2008 and 2009 election cycles.

Editor's Note: This article was amended from its original to clarify that the AVMA and Wal-Mart made campaign contributions via their respective PACs.

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