Attempt fails to change Washington law on nonprofit veterinary clinics

Bill would have let humane societies, animal-control agencies broaden services

Published: February 12, 2018
By Rosette Royale

A bill in the Washington state legislature that would have allowed low-income pet owners to receive complete veterinary care from nonprofit humane societies and animal-control agencies died in committee this month.

The proposed legislation, SB 6916, was an attempt to grant humane societies and animal-control agencies the latitude to treat animals brought in for care by low-income pet owners. By state law, such organizations may provide only limited veterinary services, namely, vaccination, microchipping and surgical sterilization (spay/neuter).

The bill would have required the organizations to document that they were providing care only to those who qualify financially. "Low-income" is defined as an income of less than 80 percent of median income in the relevant county, adjusted for household size.

Existing law specifies that veterinary services provided by nonprofit humane societies and animal-care and -control agencies limit those services to low-income households. However, the law doesn't say how the organizations should verify clients' financial status, or even whether they must. Many veterinarians in private practice regard nonprofit clinics as unfair competition if they serve pet owners who don't truly need subsidized care, an issue explored by the VIN News Service in a series of articles in 2015. VIN News found that the Washington law "does a spotty job ensuring that nonprofits serve only pet owners in financial straits."

The bill to amend the law was sponsored by Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Democrat. It garnered bipartisan support, with three Republicans among 10 co-sponsors.

On Feb. 1, the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee, chaired by Cleveland, held a public hearing on the bill. Greg Hanon, a lobbyist with the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, spoke in opposition. Hanon said the organization hadn’t had time to meet with the bill’s proponents, and that WSVMA members had concerns about how organizations would be able to test the financial means of owners. Were there measures outside of legislation, he asked, that could achieve the same goal as the proposed bill?

Five people spoke in favor of the bill, including Stacy Graham, president of the Humane Society of Southwest Washington, which had reached out to Cleveland about the issue. Graham said her organization cares for approximately 8,000 animals a year. On average, 20 families surrender their pets each week, she said. Through an informal survey, the society found that 70 percent of families that gave up their pets did so because they couldn’t afford to pay for the pets’ health issues, Graham said.

Last week, Cleveland provided a written statement indicating that she wants to address opponents' concerns and will revisit the issue in the next legislative session. The current session ends in March.

She said: “In order to fully ensure that the solution for our state best meets the need, and accomplishes the goal of making veterinary care available to low-income households across the state, I decided to continue working ... to address opposition in hopes of passing with bipartisan support next session.”

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