Alabama spay-neuter conflict called a 'PR nightmare' for veterinarians


Pressured by public, legislators and state VMA, board votes down amendment targeting nonprofit clinics.

In the weeks leading up to the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners’ (ASBVME’s) administrative rule hearing on Oct. 10, William Allen, DVM, spent three or four hours a day on the phone discussing nonprofit spay-neuter clinics in Alabama. As president of the Alabama Veterinary Medical Association (ALVMA), Allen kept a neutral stance on the role of the clinics--that is, until days before the ASBVME meeting.

The ASBVME, publicly opposed to the four nonprofit spay-neuter clinics in the state, sought to amend the state veterinary practice act to prohibit nonveterinarians from providing veterinary supplies or equipment to veterinarians or technicians. “The state board did have some concern--probably some legitimate concern--over their jurisdiction over the [501(c)(3)] clinics,” Allen says. “They have jurisdiction over the veterinarian, but they don’t really have jurisdiction over a nonveterinary owner.”

However, after speaking with ALVMA members and other veterinarians across the country and factoring in the public’s perception of the issue, Allen decided to take a position: to oppose the board on the proposed amendment. “We felt like we had to say something,” Allen says. “We became convinced this was just not the correct action to take. There had to be another way.”

“Many other states have faced this issue before. Trying to fight in court, the IRS, in the legislature. They say you all are not going to win this,” he says. Another approach was needed. “We need some way to work with the spay/neuter clinics, the 501c3s. It’s better for us, better for the public, better for the animal.”

Despite the ALVMA’s opposition and that of local legislators, it was the public’s voice that may have resonated the loudest. The public hearing was packed, and of the 18 speakers, all supported the nonprofits. “Any state board is somewhat politically motivated and they answer to the public,” Allen says. “The public voiced their opinion that they did not want this rule to be changed. (The board’s) job is to protect the public, not veterinarians.” And so, under pressure from all sides, the board voted down the amendment to the state practice act.

All along the board has maintained that its primary concern is standard of care at the clinics. The public, however, has seemed to see the board’s motivation as the financial interest of veterinarians--in other words, greed. “Veterinarians across the state were caught in a PR nightmare not of their own making,” Allen says. “They’re out there really doing the good work, but it looked like it was all about money.”

Allen says the veterinarians who supported the board’s efforts wanted to make sure of several things: that the standard of care was being met at the nonprofit clinics, that traditional veterinary practices had a level playing field concerning tax advantages, and that the public being served truly needed low-cost services. Whether or not those concerns were valid, Allen says, it may be difficult for them to regain public trust. “It was a terribly negative thing for veterinarians in the state,” Allen says.

The board may be facing challenges as well. Allen says ASBVME President Robert Pitman, DVM, has hinted that the nonprofit clinics will still have to face standard-of-care issues with the board. (Pitman has not responded to repeated requests for comment from DVM Newsmagazine.) However, that may be difficult when public perception is that the board is out to get the nonprofits. “The pressure’s on them,” Allen says. “They’re under a microscope more than they’ve even been. It probably will be difficult for them to take action unless they have concrete proof (of standard-of-care violations) so they can convince the public that they’re working in their best interest.”

The board may face even more problems if the state Sunset Committee, which has authority over the destiny of all legislative bodies, decides to act. “This has stirred up so much ill will,” Allen says. “They (the Sunset Committee members) have the ultimate power to change, disband, reappoint--they can do anything they want to do.”

Allen believes the board ultimately did the right thing by voting down the proposed amendment. “Like any board, it’s a pretty thankless job, even when things go right,” he says. “No one likes to be the policeman over their friends, colleagues and peers.”

Allen also knows the present calm will last only so long; he predicts that the issue will reemerge during the next legislative session. But for now he hopes everyone can enjoy a time of quiet. “I’m glad they have a respite from the bad PR--they don’t deserve it,” he says of his practitioner colleagues. “Veterinarians are the most hardworking people I know.”

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