DVMs battle non-profits, government for business


San Diego- "Imagine how many car dealers would be up in arms if the government decided to sell Chevys."

San Diego- "Imagine how many car dealers would be up in arms if the government decided to sell Chevys."

That's how Dr. Al Atkinson depicts a turf war being waged by privatepractitioners as non-profit shelters and animal control outfits claim so-calledrights to providing low-cost veterinary care to the general public.

In doing so, county animal controls and humane societies are encroachingon small business, using government privileges to ease the way, says Atkinson,president of the San Diego County Veterinary Medical Association (SCVMA).With tax breaks and county support, many are offering spays, neuters andwellness vaccines at unparalleled low rates.

"We can't compete," he says. "We think the county shouldpromote health and welfare issues such as rabies, but when it uses licensingforms to promote their parvo and distemper vaccines that's unfair. They'resupported by county tax dollars. It's a double slap in the face."

Combating unjust competition

For that reason, some veterinary groups are using lawsuits and legislationto fight back. Low-cost or free rabies vaccines are fine, DVMs say. It'swhen humane societies and animal control agencies attempt to enhance theirservices that the issue rouses debate.

"The cities and counties are looking for ways to bring in extrarevenue with their animal control agencies," says Ron Vera, an attorneywho's taken at least one local humane association to court. "Non-profitsperform veterinary services under the guise of public health. They're justtrying to enhance their revenue."

What it amounts to is unfair competition, says SCVMA Executive DirectorPauline White. Non-profit humane societies enjoy a tax-exempt status enablingthem to offer services at lower rates or earn more profit. Likewise, government-runanimal control agencies have little or no overhead, she adds.

"We've taken up arms," White says. "These aren't employersoperating as private businesses with worker compensation and employee benefitcosts. If they're a municipality, they're not only tax exempt, they havefee exemptions. It's definitely unfair business practices."

Courts side with private sector

Apparently, the California Court of Appeal, Second District agrees. Ina recent unpublished decision, justices upheld a trial court ruling thatbars the Pomona Valley Humane Society in Los Angeles County from solicitingpet owners whose rabies inoculations had been reported to the agency aslegally required by private veterinarians.

The quasi-public agency had the benefit of knowing the names of ownerswho vaccinated their dogs, including their contact information and weretrying to gain their business, Vera says.

"They have access to information gleaned from pet licenses thatcannot be retrieved by private veterinarians," the appellate decisionreads. "This must be considered presumptively unfair."

The trial court further found that the Humane Society retaliated againstthe plaintiff veterinarians by deleting their names from its veterinarianreferral list. The action is prohibited.

"I must have received at least 10 calls from veterinarians wantingto know more about this case, from Ventura, Fresno, San Jose," Verasays. "They're interested in the outcome and are concerned. My senseis what's happening here is going on up and down the state."

Cease and desist, please

Vera's right. At presstime, Dr. Michael O'Brien, a private practitionerin Modesto, Calif., in northern Stanislaus County, was trying to convincecounty officials to stop subsidizing spays and neuters at the local animalcontrol.

"It's hurt business, that's for sure," O'Brien says. "Peoplecan get all their shots, a spay or neuter and microchip for $40. Hey, we'rewilling to do low-cost spays and neuters for clients in need; we're willingto do them for free. But we can't compete with these prices, that's forsure."

O'Brien notes that while most of the county's services go to low-incomeresidents, the agency's seeking to expand to the general public soon.

"I'm sure servicing more of the general population is what's comingdown the road if veterinarians don't get involved," he says. "That'swhat we're trying to handle right now."

To the statehouse

Meanwhile, Pauline White, on behalf of the San Diego association, wasmeeting at presstime with Dr. Dick Schumacher, California Veterinary MedicalAssociation (CVMA) executive director, and his staff to discuss draftinga bill on the issue and modeling it after legislation recently passed inWashington.

Senate Bill 6037, backed by the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association,became law earlier this year. It spells out parameters for humane societiesand animal control agencies, banning them from offering full-service veterinaryservices to the public. The law limits their services to spays, neuters,vaccines and microchips for needy residents and strictly defines low income.In exchange, veterinary leaders retain the right to revoke these privilegesshould animal care agencies violate the law, notes Greg Hanon, the association'slobbyist.

"We fought with these agencies for a while, and it ended up thatwe had to take the issue to the state government." Hanon says. "Obviouslywe're glad we did."

But Schumacher isn't championing legislation. In fact, he says privateand public veterinary agencies must learn to "co-exist."

"We don't want to have an adversarial relationship with humane societies;we have a lot of mutual goals," he says. "It's not a level playingfield, but we're looking at the bigger picture.

"It's just a fact of life. There's vaccination competition out there.We're telling veterinarians that vaccines shouldn't be a major source ofincome."

Exceptions to the rule

Besides, some non-profits are already well established, Schumacher says.The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, forexample, reigns as the area's largest full-service veterinary hospital,founded in 1939. The hospital does receive tax breaks, but it isn't governmentfunded, relying solely on donations, grants, bequests and fees to supplementits $11.1 million budget. Taking up at least two blocks, the eight-veterinarianhospital is referred to as a campus, a temporary home for 20,000 animalsa year. While low-income residents receive free services or discounts ofup to 80 percent, the hospital also serves the general public.

When asked how area veterinarians regard the non-profit's business, Dr.Jeff Proulx, head of veterinary services notes that while some private practitionersclaim unfair competition, most work well with the agency.

"We're mainly here to service the indigent," Proulx says. "Wedo have regular paying clients that don't qualify for our financial aidprograms, but we also get all the referrals from other practices in town- clients who can't afford their care. I think other practices appreciatethat we can take these clients off their hands."

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