AVMA president: Mistrust undermines health of veterinary community

Dr. Ted Cohn calls for transparency, accountability

January 16, 2015 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News Service photo
Whether AVMA members should see the voting records of their delegates and board members is an idea resisted by some who fear transparency could lead to vote trading. New Hampshire delegate Dr. Thomas Candee (above) disagrees. “Why it’s not mandatory that we have transparency in voting is beyond me,” he said.
A lack of trust that veterinarians have for the American Veterinary Medical Association and that leaders have for each other is the “single most critical issue” facing the profession.

That assertion came last week from AVMA President Dr. Ted Cohn in his address to the House of Delegates, the AVMA’s primary policymaking body, as the group met for its biannual meeting in Chicago.

Cohn spoke of concerns from delegates that the Board of Governors, the AVMA body responsible for running the organization and also making policy, has a history of undermining House initiatives and vice versa.

“There certainly exists an unfortunate level of reciprocal mistrust; anything that the Board puts forward, the House eyes with some level of suspicion,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m betraying any trusts when I tell you the reverse is also sometimes true.”

That lack of trust is trickling down to members, Cohn added.

“They want to know not only what we are doing for them, but also, candidly, why AVMA seems to takes so long to accomplish anything of substance,” he said. “I also have to tell you that while our members certainly hope that AVMA is trying to do what is in the best interests of its members, not just in the best interest of the association, they are sometimes not really sure. On any number of occasions, I have been questioned regarding our ‘true motives.’ ”

Cohn explained that as president, he’s met with “countless” AVMA members who ask:

  • Why isn’t the Board and House more accountable and transparent to the average member? “I’ve discovered what they mean is, ‘Why doesn’t the AVMA allow us to see the voting records for our Board representative or delegate in the House?’” he said. 
  • Is the AVMA aware of what is going on regarding the profession’s economic viability? 
  • Why is the Council on Education (COE), the AVMA’s accrediting arm, dismissive of our thoughts and misgivings regarding the process of veterinary college accreditation? 
  • What’s all the fuss about changing AVMA governance? 
  • Why doesn’t the AVMA contact me more frequently to ask my opinions on topics that I feel are important?

“It should come as no surprise that these gnawing concerns lead our members to suspect our intentions, which leads to a lack of confidence in our abilities,” Cohn said. “This, in turn, inevitably results in decreasing levels of trust, which has the effect of dividing our profession and influencing the success and efficiency of all we try to accomplish.”

The fix, Cohn said, is to steer the AVMA from those with political motivations and become more straightforward. He also suggested that delegates and other AVMA officials keep an open mind and abandon preconceived notions.

“Let us begin by first being honest with ourselves about our motives and our aims,” Cohn asked of delegates and other AVMA leaders. “Let’s make sure that what we say is forthright and that we objectively report the full story.”

As the AVMA’s principal policymakers, delegates mulled several resolutions and a handful of bylaws amendments during last week’s House meeting, one of which altered the group’s mission statement to make it member-centric. Another involved a failed bid to allow members to select a proxy group to represent them in the House rather than their state associations.

Resolutions and bylaws aside, heated debate revolved around the COE and whether members are being fully apprised of its recent failure to fully comply with federal guidelines administered by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Cohn's speech was met with applause, and some delegates referenced it when calling for documents concerning the COE's dealings with federal regulators. Veterinarians noted that a recent AVMA letter to members called the evaluating body's appearance before the government “routine” when, in fact, the COE's continued recognition is at stake. 

"Dr. Cohn this morning talked about trust, and I think as a practitioner in Utah, some of these things are way beyond my grasp," said Dr. Vaughn Park, a delegate representing Utah. "But making that stuff (documents) available for me so I can study them allows me to enchance that trust." 

AVMA officials listened and noted that transcripts of the COE's most recent meeting before USDE officials will be released this spring. 

In other House business:

  • Dr. Bernadette Dunham, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine, applauded the AVMA for its response to a Reuters article that suggested veterinarians' prescribing habits are inappropriately influenced by drug makers. "I was so pleased to see AVMA stand up and speak on behalf of the profession," she said.

  • The AVMA and its indemnity arms, the Group Health and Life Insurance Trust and the Professional Liability Insurance Trust, are being rebranded. The PLIT's new look and tag line, "protecting you through it all," was unveiled during the House of Delegates meeting. The AVMA and GHLIT aren't as far along in the process but will launch redesigns later this year with the help of 88 Brand Partners, a Chicago-based creative agency. The goal is to offer a better understanding of what the AVMA, GHLIT and PLIT provide to veterinarians.

  • AVMA President-elect Dr. Joe Kinnarney introduced the Advisory Panel Pilot Program as a new way to seat AVMA councils and committees. Of 113 committee and council vacancies that have opened since January 2014, 78 of them had one or no nominees. The program's goal is to provide high-value opportunities and reduce time commitments tied to the positions. While details of the advisory panel program are being worked out, the idea is to create a large pool of professionals who declare their expertise and interests so they can be tapped to serve as members of short-term, ad hoc working groups that address issues relevant to the profession.

  • The American Veterinary Medical Foundation announced the launch of its Veterinary Care Charitable Fund, which is tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code, section 501(c)(3). The fund is designed to offset the expense of providing low- or no-cost services to clients who can't pay while expanding the practice's philanthropic role in the community. The fund is intended to aid Good Samaritans who rescue animals, disabled veterans requiring service dogs, victims of domestic violence, low-income seniors and others. The AVMF manages the funds of enrolled practices and puts 8 percent of every donation into the Greatest Needs Fund, a shared account that's available to all participating practices when faced with a medical case that costs beyond what is in their individual accounts.

  • Dr. Tom Meyer, a member of the Board of Directors, announced his campaign for 2015-2016 AVMA president-elect. In a speech before delegates, he described the AVMA as the "lynchpin" that holds the profession together. "I am committed to making each day count for the AVMA," he said. The House will elect the AVMA president-elect in July, when the group gathers in Boston. Meyer is running uncontested. 

  • Kinnarney spoke to delegates about the Fairness to Pet Owners Act and solicited donations to the AVMA's political action committee, which raises money to lobby Congress. The bill, first introduced in 2011 but never passed, is expected to reemerge this year in an effort to require veterinarians to write prescriptions to clients, even when they elect to buy medications from a veterinarian's in-house pharmacy. "You know if this passes ... we're not going to have a happy constituency," he said.

  • AVMA Treasurer Dr. Barbara Schmidt detailed the AVMA's 2015 annual operating budget. Revenues are projected at $34.4 million and expenditures are expected to be less than $34 million. Projected net revenue, she said, is $373,000, but that does not include investment revenues or $280,000 that's allocated from AVMA reserves to fund the association's strategic initiatives. Schmidt added that the AVMA's membership is comprised of an estimated 86,500 veterinarians. While that figure is up from last year, AVMA CEO Dr. Ron DeHaven expressed concern about the AVMA's market share. Eighty percent of all U.S. veterinarians are AVMA members, down from 85 percent, he said. Seventy-one percent of the AVMA's budget comes from dues income. 

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