Lawmaker behind proposed Fairness to Pet Owners Act aims to inform consumers

Congressman heading toward retirement reintroduces bill

March 14, 2014 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Congress
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah
The author of legislation that would require veterinarians to give clients prescriptions for their pets’ medications says his proposed Fairness to Pet Owners Act may raise public awareness about their veterinary-drug purchasing options even if Congress doesn’t act on the bill.

“I think it’s important to have the issue out there and have people talk about it,” Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, told the VIN News Service in an interview this week. “Even if the legislation were never to pass, I think consumers should be aware that they should at least ask for a prescription.”

Matheson originally introduced the legislation in 2011. That bill, HR 1406, expired in the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee when the legislative session ended in early 2013. Matheson reintroduced the legislation on Feb. 10. Now given the bill number HR 4023, it again has been assigned to the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) opposes the proposed law, calling it “burdensome and unnecessary.”

“Clients already have the flexibility to fill a prescription at their veterinary clinic or off-site at a pharmacy of their choice,” the trade organization states in a legislative alert to members. “The AVMA is supportive of a client’s right to choose where they have their prescription filled.”

Matheson disputes the assertion that clients already can obtain veterinary prescriptions. “I just don’t think that’s true,” he said.

Not a current pet owner himself, Matheson said he was made aware of the issue by a former staff member who was his legislative director. The staffer told him she’d paid a veterinarian $43 for medication that her dog would need monthly. When she discovered the same medication was available at a nearby drugstore for $18, she asked the veterinarian for a prescription. Matheson said the veterinarian charged her a prescription-writing fee of $5.

Matheson said he’s heard similar stories from other pet owners. He also said he’s spoken with pet owners who were unaware that they may request a prescription from their veterinarians.

The legislation would require veterinarians to provide prescriptions whether requested or not. In addition, it would prohibit:

  • charging fees for providing or verifying prescriptions
  • specifying from where clients must buy medications as a condition for receiving a prescription
  • requiring clients to sign a waiver relieving the doctor of liability in the case of any problems with a prescription filled elsewhere

Dr. Ashley Morgan, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, acknowledged that there may be instances of veterinarians declining to provide prescriptions, but not enough to justify a law.

“Our understanding and belief is that it’s not a pervasive problem,” Morgan said. “The AVMA's Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics states that a veterinarian should honor a client's request. If there are veterinarians not providing prescriptions, hopefully they have a medical or ethical reason for doing it and are communicating that to the client.”

The AVMA maintains that requiring veterinarians to provide prescriptions as a matter of routine, even if a client chooses to purchase medication at a clinic, is an “undue regulatory and administrative burden.” It adds: “… some medications are only available through a veterinarian; in those cases, it is unnecessary for the client to have a copy of the written prescription.”

The AVMA also argues that the proposal encroaches on the jurisdiction of states, which regulate the veterinary and pharmacy professions. About 84,000 veterinarians belong to the AVMA.

Matheson said there is no reason that veterinarians can’t follow the same practice as physicians in writing prescriptions to be filled by pharmacists. “In the case of human doctors, they can’t dispense medication,” he said. “We’ve made a decision that that is a conflict of interest. I’m not raising that issue right now (for veterinary medicine), but I could.”

How far the legislation will progress in the time remaining in this legislative session is a question., an online legislative tracking tool maintained by the government-transparency company Civic Impulse, LLC, gives the bill zero chance of being enacted, based upon the small proportion of bills that historically have made it out of committee.

The legislative session officially ends Jan. 3, 2015, but Morgan said that in election years such as this, little activity typically occurs after June. All House seats and one-third of Senate seats are up for election in November. Morgan added, however, that a groundswell of support for the legislation could create momentum for lawmakers to act before the session closes.

Matheson is not running again. Asked whether he would work on the pet prescription issue after he retires from Congress, he replied, “I don’t know what I’m going to be doing after this year.”

Co-sponsoring the legislation is another Utah congressman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who is seeking re-election. His press secretary, M.J. Henshaw, could not say whether Chaffetz would reintroduce the legislation in the next session if it doesn’t progress this year. “I can’t necessarily talk toward the future, but it’s something he’s been interested in,” Henshaw said.

Chaffetz’s interest lies in supporting free-market competition and giving consumers greater choice, she said.

“We feel that it’s better … for the consumer to let them make the choice, instead of letting regulations make the choice,” Henshaw said.

Told that some would equate legislation to regulations, Henshaw responded only, “Yes.”

The earlier version of the bill had five other co-sponsors from both parties. Whether some or all will renew their support is unknown. Inquiries by the VIN News Service to their offices were not answered.

Beyond Capitol Hill, supporters of the original bill include Wal-Mart, which promotes the availability in its pharmacies of human drugs sometimes prescribed for pets. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the VIN News Service in 2011 that the company “supports efforts that give our customers a say where they purchase medicines and enables them to save money on the same items commonly prescribed to individuals, such as insulin and antibiotics, so even their pets can live better.”

Morgan of the AVMA said Wal-Mart approached her organization in 2010, before the bill was introduced, to express its support of the legislation and request the AVMA’s backing. The AVMA declined.

Wal-Mart did not respond to a VIN News Service inquiry this week about its involvement with the legislation.

Matheson said Wal-Mart did not ask him to create the bill. “I know they’re supportive of it, but I don’t think they’ve been closely working with me. They weren’t involved in writing the legislation, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “… They’ve come into my office and said, ‘Thank you.’ I think we wrote the bill ourselves.”

Matheson compares the Fairness to Pet Owners Act to the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act of 2003, which he co-sponsored. The contact lens law requires eye doctors to provide patients with prescriptions enabling them to purchase their lenses elsewhere.

A beneficiary of that law is 800 Contacts, which calls itself the “World’s Largest Contact Lens Store.” Based in Utah, 800 Contacts ranks as Matheson’s fourth biggest campaign donor since his election in 2000.

Wal-Mart Stores also has been a consistent donor to Matheson, as it has to numerous legislators in both parties. Contributing $65,000 of the $13.4 million raised during the congressman’s career, Wal-Mart ranks 12th among Matheson donors, tied with the Laborers Union and National Association of Home Builders.

Another organization publicly supporting the Fairness to Pet Owners Act is Advocacy for Pets and Affordable Wellness. APAW describes itself as “a national coalition of pet owners and advocates dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of America’s pets and empowering pet owners everywhere to demand affordable, quality health care and medicine for their animals.”

On its website, which focuses on the proposed legislation, APAW has a page titled “Where to buy meds” that displays the logos of 26 retail supermarkets and pharmacies. The stores are, or are owned by, Wal-Mart, Albertson’s, Kroger, Bashas’ and Brookshire Brothers. Also in the listing is one online pharmacy, PetCare Rx.

The page does not list several other retail chains that promote their sales of veterinary medications, including Costco, Target and Walgreens. Also not included are online veterinary pharmacies such as Drs. Foster & Smith and PetMed Express.

PetMed Express CEO Mendo Akdag has told the VIN News Service that his company is not involved with the proposed legislation, and confirmed recently that that remains the case. “We are a spectator,” he said.

The APAW website does not name the members or leaders of its coalition. An article published by Yahoo! Shine dated April 17, 2013, identifies the founder as Barbara Trulio, operator of a petsitting and dog-walking service in Huntington Beach, Calif. Reached by telephone, Trulio told the VIN News Service that she no longer is actively involved with the organization due to health issues in her family. She said the coalition’s management was “handed off” to a public relations company, Formula PR, in San Diego, which she said is paid by members of the coalition. Trulio referred further questions to Stephanie Proos at Formula PR.

Proos, in turn, said Formula PR no longer is working with the coalition. APAW’s current spokesperson is Jenny Gilcrest at Scout-PR. Speaking Friday afternoon, Gilcrest said the coalition includes politicians, veterinarians, retailers, product companies and shelter groups. She said she would provide more details soon.

Asked about APAW, Matheson said he is unfamiliar with the organization.

The Fairness to Pet Owners Act, if passed, would give the job of enforcement to the Federal Trade Commission. Prompted by the bill’s original introduction in 2011, the FTC began studying the world of veterinary drug distribution and held a public workshop on the topic in October 2012.

One confounding aspect of the pet drug industry is the gray market through which most retail outlets and online veterinary pharmacies ostensibly obtain their supplies. Secretive secondary channels that comprise the gray market developed as a consequence of policies by most pharmaceutical companies to sell veterinary drugs only to licensed, practicing veterinarians. The companies maintain that having veterinarians sell their products helps ensure that pet owners are instructed in safe and proper use.

The veterinary community deems the gray market an illegitimate and unreliable supplier of drugs and therapeutics. However, the issue is clouded by the fact that some veterinarians participate in the gray market by selling product to brokers. Pharmaceutical companies, too, have been accused of facilitating gray-market sales.

A separate issue is the potential for retail pharmacists, who largely are untrained in veterinary pharmacology, to make mistakes when filling veterinary prescriptions. Veterinarians across the country have reported, mostly anecdotally, instances of pharmacists deliberately changing dosages or providing inappropriate drug substitutes out of ignorance.

Matheson said he is aware of the problem. “I think that is worrisome,” he acknowledged, “and I think pharmacists ought to follow the prescription that they’re given.”

Matheson also said he was aware of the FTC study of the issue and would have liked to have seen the commission’s findings before reintroducing the legislation. But not knowing when that might be, he said, he decided not to wait.

Stephanie Wilkinson, the FTC lawyer who organized the conference on pet drugs, confirmed that the agency is considering issuing a report synthesizing staff research, workshop testimony and public comments but could not say when.

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