Veterinarians confront Internet pharmacy PetMed Express

Company acknowledges: ‘Some mistakes were made’

Published: January 16, 2012
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo by Jennifer Fiala
Dr. Doug Mader, past president of the North American Veterinary Conference, moderated a confrontational discussion Sunday about the role of Internet pharmacy PetMed Express in veterinary medicine. On the discussion panel were Bonnie Levengood, PetMed Express marketing director; Gary Koesten, PetMed Express director of pharmacy services; Dr. Jim Wilson, a veterinary consultant based in Pennsylvania; Dr. Ernie Ward, practice owner, lecturer and media personality from North Carolina; and Dr. Doralee Donaldson, a practice owner in Alabama.
Officials with PetMed Express came face-to-face with veterinarians on Sunday night in an attempt to ease more than a decade’s worth of scorn from the profession. 

The panel discussion, held at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) in Orlando, sparked a heated debate covering everything from the company’s advertising practices to competition and its communications with veterinarians’ clients. 

PetMed Express pulled out of NAVC last month when veterinarians took to the show’s Facebook page, protesting the controversial Internet pharmacy’s planned presence as an exhibitor. Reportedly shocked by the public outcry, PetMed Express agreed instead to host a panel discussion in an attempt to improve its acrimonious relationship with practitioners.

“We’re really just here to hear what you have to say," Bonnie Levengood, marketing director for PetMed Express, told the audience.  

PetMed Express, commonly referred to as 1-800-PetMeds, has been a thorn in the side of practitioners since it debuted in 1996. The online pharmacy competes with veterinarians for share in the $3.8-billion pet medication market. Drug sales are a traditional, albeit declining, revenue stream for many private veterinary practices. PetMed Express is among a growing number of pharmacies and retailers trying to undercut DVMs on flea and tick killers, obtaining those products apparently via gray-market channels.

When one audience member asked where PetMed Express acquires its pet parasiticides, company officials refused to share the information for confidentiality reasons. 

Numerous state pharmacy boards have fined PetMed Express for dispensing prescription medications illegally, without a veterinary-client-patient relationship. 

Ground rules laid at the start of the meeting by moderator and NAVC past president Dr. Doug Mader foreshadowed a debate laden with animosity.

“This is not a public stoning,” Mader warned the crowd of roughly 100. “This is not a hit session.”

Audience members — as well as veterinarians on the panel — took the Internet pharmacy to task for “deliberately undermining the profession.” 
The company made a “conscious choice to alienate vets,” said Dr. Doralee Donaldson, owner of a practice near Birmingham, Ala., who earned a seat on the 5-person panel due to her vocal opposition to the company’s presence at NAVC. In addition to airing her objections on NAVC’s Facebook page, Donaldson started a petition on to have PetMed Express booted from the convention. In two days, her petition drew 149 signatures. 

PetMed Express officials said they were caught off-guard by the reaction. “When we came up with advertising, we never intended to create this kind of discord,” Levengood said. 

Amid crowd grumbles, she added an emphatic: “I’m serious.” 

Some audience members attributed PetMed Express’ olive branch to the fact that the company’s stock is floundering in the face of competition from retailers such as Target, Amazon and Wal-Mart. 

Admitting that PetMed Express "can't survive" without veterinarians scripting out to patients, Levengood said the company wants to improve its relationship with the profession. She acknowledged that “some mistakes were made” in the tone of advertisements in the past.

PetMed Express' most recent television advertisement features a veterinarian’s endorsement — a departure from earlier versions that portrayed PetMed Express as a way for pet owners to circumvent what the company depicted to be superfluous and overpriced veterinary visits. 

Levengood said the company has since “made strides to take out anything that could be construed as negative" in its direct communications with customers. 

“We’re taking a way more positive stance  — even when we see things we know aren’t right,” Levengood said, alluding to the fact that some veterinarians might refuse to authorize prescriptions to clients merely because they don’t want to lose the business. 

Regulations in at least 17 states require veterinarians to script out upon request; the American Veterinary Medical Association considers such practice to be an ethical obligation.  

Other complaints revolved around the years that PetMed Express illegally prescribed medications to clients. At one time, the online pharmacy had an “alternate veterinary program” that employed staff DVMs to prescribe and dispense drugs without a veterinary-client-patient relationship. The program was set up to sidestep veterinarians who refused, for any number of reasons, to script out to potential PetMed Express customers. 

The program ended when various state boards of pharmacy deemed the operation illegal.

PetMed Express officials Sunday said the issue was “very far in the past.”  “Please stop holding us accountable for things that went on 11, 12, 13 years ago," said Gary Koesten, PetMed Express director of pharmacy services.  

Koesten said he oversees a team of 11 pharmacists and 33 pharmacy technicians who wouldn’t risk their licenses to dispense prescription medications illegally.

Nowadays, if a veterinarian comes across a client who’s received, say, a heartworm preventive without a prescription, it comes from a copycat company — not PetMed Express, Koesten said. 

“There are a number of trademark infringers,” he said, listing several Internet-based pharmacies with names and web addresses similar to that of PetMed Express.

The explanations and pleas didn't win over the audience and panel, however. Dr. Jim Wilson, a consultant and panelist, suggested that PetMed Express create a veterinary advisory board to oversee its television advertisements and letters to customers as a way of guarding against negative language that blames veterinarians for refusing to sign prescriptions.

Dr. Ernie Ward, a practice owner, lecturer and media personality who also sat on the panel, noted that even if PetMed Express operates within the law, that doesn't mean it's operating ethically and in the best interest of veterinarians.  

Donaldson ended the discussion and prompted a round of applause with: “A snake is a snake no matter how many times it sheds its skin."

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