Ala. spay-neuter veterinarian guilty on only three charges


ASBVME rejected the judges recommendation to find Dr. Margaret Ferrell not guilty on all 29 charges, but the 26 rulings they did agree on contradict long-held assertions by opponents.

The Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has found Margaret Ferrell, DVM, lead veterinarian at Alabama Spay/Neuter in Irondale, Alabama, guilty of three of the 29 charges against her. The guilty rulings went against Administrative Law Judge James Jerry Wood's recommendation that Ferrell be found not guilty on all charges.

Although requested, ASBVME has not yet provided the board's official ruling in writing. However, sources tell dvm360 that the guilty verdicts surround the charges related to current Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regulations and inventory report requests; allowing unlicensed persons to vaccinate or treat animals without required supervision and to administer controlled substances; and practicing veterinary medicine at times when Alabama Spay/Neuter did not have a premise permit. It is reported that Ferrell has been fined $250, sent a letter of reprimand and an additional letter of admonition.

"I know the board members worked very hard to go through all of the information they were given.  I am disappointed they didn't agree with all of Judge Wood's recommendations, but I harbor no hard feelings toward them," says Ferrell, who also sits on the board of the ASBVME, but recused herself from deliberations on her case. "The board members did what they thought was best with the information they had before them and I am looking forward to having a good working relationship with them over the next four years of my term."

Yet, while the guilty verdicts may sting, Ferrell realizes that the remaining 26 charges in which the ASBVME upheld Judge Wood's not guilty recommendations are hugely important for low-cost spay/neuter clinics in the state. "I am very relieved some of the most contentious issues have been settled-standard of care, negligence, malpractice and ownership concerns have all been dismissed with unanimous votes of not guilty. Overall, it is a victory for both myself and the non-profit spay/neuter clinics in Alabama."

It may prove to be a victory for the appeal of Alabama Spay/Neuter veterinary practice owner William Weber, DVM, as well. Found guilty on five charges related to veterinary ownership by the ASBVME last summer, the board elected to revoke his license for a year and ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine. Weber is set to appeal his verdict to the Circuit Court of Montgomery County with an expected court date in March.

Two of the most prominent voices against Alabama's low-cost spay-neuter clinics, Robert Pitman, DVM, and Ronnie Welch, DVM, remained in leadership positions on the ASBVME during the board's investigation of Weber and subsequent administrative hearing and eventual ruling. Ferrell says her hearing was like night and day from Weber's 12-day hearing, which was run by the board, not an administrative law judge. Many deemed it a circus. "Judge Wood made all the difference," Ferrell said of her hearing. "I hate it for Dr. Weber that he didn't have one."

Tensions poised to escalate

Pitman and Welch left no ambiguity in their testimony against Ferrell that nonprofit low-cost clinics are unfair competition for private practices and that penalties should be executed against Ferrell on all charges. Both practice owners in Alabama, the pair no longer serve on the ASBVME. They are now associated with the Alabama Veterinary Practice Owners Association (ALVPOA) created to maintain opposition to the low-cost spay-neuter clinics in Alabama.

And maintain it has. In response to Judge Wood's recommendation to the board, the ALVPOA sent an email to veterinarians decrying his ruling and encouraging veterinarians to contact the ASBVME to urge it to reject the recommendation as well. The ALVPOA followed with another email the day before the board's deliberation Jan. 16 with the subject line, "Radical Vet Envy."

The letter to veterinarians describes supporters of nonprofit low-cost spay-neuter clinics as plagued by "vet envy." "They have no concept of the standards they are trying to compromise. They are capitalizing on this case to create sensationalism and to divide the professional community on this issue," the unsigned ALVPOA letter reads. "Their entrenched mindset is what is causing this issue to drag on and on year after year. Their ever-increasing radical methods of castigating the players are the real disgrace here."

There is no doubt that this contentious issue has been-and continues to be-ugly in Alabama. In recent years, debate over the role of the few nonprofit spay-neuter clinics in the state has pitted members of the ALVPOA and the ASBVME against the Alabama Veterinary Medical Association (ALVMA). Pitman even filed a lawsuit against the ALVMA in 2013. Facebook pages born out of emotional and political dissidence like "Eye on the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners" have illustrated the feelings of pet owners and animal lovers toward what they label as "greedy" veterinarians. The issue continues to be played out in a very public way-in 2012, former president of the ALVMA William Allen, DVM, dubbed it a public relations nightmare for veterinarians.

This most recent ALVPOA letter accuses clinic supporters of following the teachings of the late community organizer Saul Alinsky, who wrote the book Rules for Radicals. It warns veterinarians of the group's alleged tactics. Reporter Joey Kennedy of the Alabama Media Group picked up the letter. He headlined his column this way: "Basically calling opponents 'communists,' vet practice owners group tried desperately to influence examiners in Ferrell case."

Ferrell has read the recent ALVPOA letters. She's even allowed herself to read the comments section on the local articles about her hearing. She admits that direct opposition against her hurts. "I had hoped that when the truth came out my colleagues would not still believe all the nasty rumors that have been circulating. Sadly, it appears this may not be the case," Ferrell says. "It's still important to me to work toward a peaceful resolution, even if it takes years."

A fight far from over

Ferrell says that with the feelings stirred up in Alabama's veterinary community over the low-cost spay-neuter issue, Pitman,Welch and the ALVPOA won't be giving up the fight anytime soon. "They won't let this go," she says.

One big takeaway from Judge Wood's recommendation in Ferrell's case was his statement that the Alabama Veterinary Practice Act does not define "owner," nor does it define the phrase "responsible for the management of the premises." Wood also noted that the practice act does not specifically address nonprofit entities.

"ASBVME considers the 'practice owner' arrangement between Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic and Dr. Weber to be a 'sham' designed to avoid the Alabama Veterinary Practice Act requirement that all the 'owners of a veterinary practice be licensed veterinarians,'" Wood states in the ruling. "The real question is whether a non-profit such as Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic, which has no equity owners, can lawfully operate as it does." He says the evidence in the case of Ferrell, as the practice act currently stands, proves the clinic is lawful.

Legislative attempts to amend or uphold the practice act from both sides of the low-cost spay-neuter debate-even competing bills that divided the ASBVME and ALVMA-have been introduced without success in recent years. After its  failures in the 2013 legislative session, the ALVPOA created a political action committee (PAC) called the "Political Animal" to fund the campaigns of political candidates "sympathetic" to their interests.

Although legislation failed again in 2014-and clinic opponents seemed more focused on subpoenas, lawsuits and administrative hearings-the 2015 regular session of the Alabama legislature convenes at noon March 3. Based on Judge Wood's assessment of the state's practice act, Ferrell expects a host of new legislation to be introduced this year. "I do think that's going to be the next fight," she says. "The legislative arena."

For comprehensive coverage of the role of nonprofit low-cost spay-neuter clinics in Alabama, go to Pitman, the ASBVME and the ALVPOA did not respond to repeated requests for comment by dvm360.

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