AVMA challenges Wal-Mart’s push to make veterinarians script out

Fairness to Pet Owners Act sits at controversy's center

October 5, 2011 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Wal-Mart operates more than 2,700 stores in the United States. Photo: VIN News Service.
“Once again, giant box store Wal-Mart is in the business of going after small businesses. This time it’s veterinary clinics.”  

That’s the first line in a recent alert emailed to members of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Wal-Mart, one of the nation's largest sellers of prescription drugs, is rallying public backing for HR 1406 — The Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011 — by creating an online campaign that asks the public to “take action.” With the click of a button, visitors to the site can email their representatives in support of the legislation.  

Introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson, HR 1406 requires veterinarians to issue prescriptions to clients, enabling pet owners to bargain hunt in pharmacies for their pet medications. The bill stipulates that veterinarians may not refuse to write a prescription or charge a fee for it.

The AVMA has responded to Wal-Mart's rally by attempting to create a grassroots campaign of its own, imploring veterinarians and others to contact their legislators in opposition.

Why? Because HR 1406 is onerous, burdensome and unnecessary, AVMA leaders say. The nation’s largest trade group for veterinarians argues that practitioners are ethically obligated to script out when asked, and regulations in many states require it. What’s more, they say HR 1406 inappropriately prohibits a business from charging for the delivery of a service such as writing a prescription.

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, wants legal assurance that owners have the ability to obtain prescriptions for pet medications, allowing them to bargain shop, presumably at Wal-Mart pharmacies and other stores. Consumers should have a choice, especially when their pets need antibiotics, insulins and other human drugs, says Lorenzo Lopez, director of Wal-Mart's media relations.  

Lopez noted in an email to the VIN News Service that Wal-Mart does not carry animal-specific medications. However, Wal-Mart sells generic drugs such as amoxicillin and penicillin, which commonly are prescribed to pets. 

“The bill allows consumers a choice when it comes to prescription medications for their pets, just like they have for their own personal medications," Lopez states. "As part of a broad coalition, Wal-Mart 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." 

It's common for owners to obtain pet medications from veterinarians. Proponents of that scenario maintain that veterinary practices are uniquely suited to dispense pet medications because animals often require dosages that differ substantially from those used in humans, and therefore are unfamiliar to pharmacists. Drugs also often have a different physiological effect in pets than in humans.      

Wal-Mart and others advocating for the passage of HR 1406 contend that veterinarians object to it because they are trying to maintain a hold on prescription profits. Not so, AVMA leaders counter.  

"AVMA has a long-standing policy encouraging veterinarians to write a prescription in lieu of dispensing when asked by a client. And pet owners already have the freedom to take a prescription to be filled at the pharmacy of their choice," stated Dr. Mark Lutchaunig, head of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division (GRD), in an interview last spring with the VIN News Service.  

The AVMA expects that the bill’s passage will require only more paperwork for veterinarians. To convey this idea, the group aired a video skit during the AVMA annual convention in July in St. Louis showing how the law might burden veterinary practices and their clients.   

While the AVMA did not respond to requests for a copy of the video, the VIN News Service attended the convention where it was presented. The skit went like this: A veterinarian and client are in an exam room discussing an animal’s medication. The client expects to get the medication from the veterinary practice, but the veterinarian must embark on a awkward explanation detailing why she needs to write a prescription for the medication so the client can hand it back to the veterinarian. Then the veterinary practice's pharmacy can dispense the medication.  

The AVMA and Wal-Mart aren’t the only organizations with a stance on HR 1406. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that tracks money in U.S. politics, Bayer AG and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) are weighing in as well.

“We have endorsed the bill,” states Chrissy Kopple, NACDS vice president of media relations. She declined to detail why the association favors HR 1406 but noted that Wal-Mart is one of the trade group’s 130-plus members.  

According to disclosure reports filed with Congress, NACDS spent more than $1.2 million during the first two quarters of this year pushing its federal agenda, HR 1406 included. For its part, Wal-Mart pays D&P Creative Strategies, LLC, a lobbying firm based in Virginia, $30,000 a quarter to push a number of initiatives that include the fairness act legislation.  

Bayer, whose rapport with veterinarians has suffered since opening its flea and tick preventatives to retail outlets in March 2010, opposes HR 1406. The drug maker employs 25 in-house lobbyists on a $3-million payroll but supports just one lobbyist in Washington who's dedicated to animal health.  

"Simply put, HR 1406 provides no additional benefits to pet owners. It is unnecessary and encroaches on state pharmacy and veterinary practice laws that already govern compliance by veterinarians," writes Staci Gouveia, Bayer's director of communications, in an email to the VIN News Service.  

The AVMA allocates $300,000 a year for its Governmental Relations Division in Washington, which employs four registered lobbyists, three of whom are veterinarians. The AVMA allots another $30,000 a quarter to CM Government Relations, a lobbying firm with deep roots in pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.

According to disclosure reports filed with Congress, the AVMA spent $310,000 lobbying for the association's position on HR 1406 and other initiatives during the first six months of this year.

"It's time for veterinarians to take action!" the AVMA proclaims in its alert to members. "If you don't speak up, the only message Congress will hear is Wal-Mart's!"


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