Veterinarians challenge AVMA’s governance in quest to be heard

‘1 Member, 1 Vote’ drive kicks off at annual convention in Atlanta

July 30, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

A nonprofit foundation tied to the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) has embarked on a campaign to reform the policy-making processes that steer the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

“One member, one vote” is the message that speaks to a number of AVMA members who say they feel disenfranchised by an antiquated governance infrastructure that drives the nation’s largest professional association for veterinarians.

It’s the first time that AVMA operations have been challenged at this level from within the association’s general membership. The VIN Foundation is the benevolent arm of VIN, an online community that counts more than 40,000 veterinary professionals as colleagues, most of whom are dues-paying AVMA members.

This week, illuminated signs touting “one member, one vote” are on display for AVMA annual conference attendees walking through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Campaign organizers intend to distribute materials throughout the meeting, which runs today through Tuesday at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The message’s impact is most apparent at the House of Delegates (HOD) session, which began Thursday in conjunction with the convention. While the AVMA’s staff and executive leadership have yet to publicly address the "one member, one vote" challenge, initial reaction from delegates is mixed. Debate on the topic is occurring on the group’s online listserv, creating buzz among delegates at the meeting.

Dr. George Bishop, delegate from California, is intrigued by any concept that enhances democracy within the AVMA but acknowledges potential difficulties of turning to its 80,000-plus members every time the association needs to create policy or take an action.

Despite the potential logistical hurdle, he finds the idea “refreshing.”

“I think having a fresh set of eyes on anything is a good idea,” Bishop says. “The main thing is to open a dialogue and let the members either show their apathy or show their concerns and be heard. Members are truly feeling disenfranchised.”

In recent months, veterinarians across the country and within the VIN community have expressed outrage concerning a number of recent issues at AVMA. Top concerns include the organization’s ties to a private pet health insurance company; and its policy of extending U.S. accreditation internationally, with controversy swirling around a bid for accreditation by a veterinary medical program in Mexico.

Though the association counts more than 80 percent of all U.S. veterinarians as members, its policies and governance are made by relatively few: a 16-member AVMA Executive Board, which functions as an administrative body, and the HOD, the group’s legislative arm. While members at large who are involved in organized veterinary medicine elect many in the Executive Board and HOD, many practitioners in AVMA’s general membership have little knowledge of or contact with their regional representatives.

Critics contend that the system is vulnerable to personal agendas, operating more like a popularity contest than an organization working for its members. Additionally, many members report feeling disconnected. In a recent VIN survey on perceptions of the AVMA, nearly 59 percent of 2,934 veterinarians who responded rated as "fair" or "poor" the AVMA’s efforts to understand and address issues important to them. Fifty-six percent of the respondents rated the AVMA’s communication with its membership the same way.

Still, 94 percent of the survey respondents believe that organized veterinary medicine is important to the long-term health of the profession.

With that in mind, the "one member, one vote" campaign was born, says Dr. Carl Darby, who sits on the VIN Foundation Board of Directors.

Darby, a practitioner in upstate New York, reports that the nonprofit spent more than $7,500 to convey the "one member, one vote" message to conference-goers. “Our only agenda is to start conversations about how to make AVMA better,” he says.

Darby justifies the need for change within the AVMA’s governance structure this way:

“The AVMA has evolved into a bureaucratic behemoth that resists change. In order to change the AVMA by changing its elected members, a prospective AVMA volunteer must navigate a complex and rather opaque election process. We realize it is very easy to criticize the current organization, but what we need to do is offer a solution.

“We feel the solution lies with one member, one vote.”

Though the system is designed to enhance democracy by encouraging participation directly from AVMA’s membership base, detractors counter that those unversed on the issues could be bad for governance.

One House delegate who asked not to be named took a shot at VIN Co-founder and President Dr. Paul Pion, who has been openly critical of the AVMA’s governing structure for being weighed down by red tape and too far removed from the general membership. Pion, also a member of the VIN Foundation, is a driving force in the “one member, one vote” challenge.

“We’re a group of volunteers who are out here living this," the delegate says. "It’s not quite fair to criticize us if you’re not going to get involved."

Pion responds that he has “great respect for AVMA volunteers and the general staff” and would get involved — under the right conditions.

“I would love to help build a better AVMA,” he says. “But I won’t get lost in their bureaucracy and be silenced by it. To do so would be a disservice to those who matter, my colleagues in the trenches whom AVMA should be working to serve as their first priority.”  

While Pion acknowledges having no volunteer time logged within AVMA’s governing ranks, Dr. Roy Smith, a feline practitioner in Austin and longtime VIN member, has spent 50 years serving organized veterinary medicine at a national level. Smith sits on the VIN Board of Directors but has no ties to the VIN Foundation's "one member, one vote" campaign.

Reflecting on his time in the AVMA governance structure, Smith describes it as overly political and admits to having some regrets about how he and others worked the system.

“I’ve gotten two people elected president, and I’ve been part of that process,” he says. “I look back and see that it’s not right. It’s a popularity contest and there’s a lot of self-interest involved. There is 'horse trading' going on, some of it with private industry. It’s just wrong.”

Smith acknowledges that changing an entrenched system will be an uphill battle. Apathy, he says, is another likely setback to imposing a "one member, one vote" system.

“It’s the same principle as running this country,” Smith says. “How do you change the behavior of the members? How do you get people involved and take an interest? I don’t have an answer to that.”

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