Practitioners lash out against PetMed Express


Schaumburg, Ill.-The nation's largest Internet/mail-order pet pharmacy claims to have cleaned up its act, but veterinarians allege that despite fines and warnings, PetMed Express's new sales tactics are infuriating and damaging, if not illegal.

Schaumburg, Ill.-The nation's largest Internet/mail-order pet pharmacy claims to have cleaned up its act, but veterinarians allege that despite fines and warnings, PetMed Express's new sales tactics are infuriating and damaging, if not illegal.

Dr. Elizabeth Curry-Galvin

Practitioners are so incensed some are considering class action lawsuits charging the embattled company with slander, fraud and deception. While company executives insist they no longer payroll DVMs to script out drugs for unexamined pets, they admit sending clients complaint forms when prescriptions are denied, conference calling veterinarians with clients on the line and faxing what some view as threatening language to force an OK on regulated products. Even PetMed Express commercials advocate rogue activity, says Dr. Elizabeth Curry-Galvin, assistant director of scientific activities for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

"The commercials alone intimate that a veterinary exam is an unnecessary nuisance," Curry-Galvin says. "The AVMA is greatly concerned that these tactics undermine the veterinary-client-patient relationship."

"Enough is enough"

Correspondence between Dr. Sam Basilious and PetMed Express has become so heated, the Burbank, Calif., practitioner says he's considering a class action lawsuit. Basilious alleges PetMed Express has harassed him and his staff by phone, surreptitiously recorded their conversations and lists his practice on the company Web site, advertising a lay staffer as the hospital veterinarian. After dispensing an unauthorized prescription de-wormer to a client, PetMed Express officials would not take his calls to complain, Basilious claims.

"If these practices aren't illegal, I'm sure they violate the spirit of the law," he says. "They're Pit Bulls on the phone, giving clients the impression that veterinarians are unethical. This company is trashing the profession."

PetMed Express officials deny Basilious' claims.

Scare tactics

When veterinarians refuse prescriptions for PetMed Express customers, the company often sends owners a letter attached to complaint forms addressed to the state attorney general's office and veterinary licensing board.

The letter paints the DVM's failure to script out as unethical, stating: "In some instances, we find that veterinarians withhold prescription authorization because they want to sell the medication themselves. This restricts freedom of choice and leads to higher prices for consumers, and requires the inconvenience of an additional trip to the veterinarian's office."

Most officials contend these letters and complaint forms have no practical application except to add paperwork for the agencies involved. Veterinarians can't be punished for refusing to deal with PetMed Express, but Dr. Philip Price, of Eastlake, Ohio, is concerned about the "slanderous" language involved.

"At first I felt a little awkward and nervous about these letters. Now I'm just mad," says Price, who claims to ignore at least five PetMed Express faxes a day. "They're tiptoeing around the law and creating a stink in client's minds."

Price refuses to deal with PetMed Express. Like Basilious, he's considering a class action lawsuit.

"This company is such a nuisance," he says. "A civil suit would be great. I would really like to spread the word and get one started."

Caught off guard

Ignore PetMed Express long enough, and company representatives will likely start calling, says Lori Miller, a practice manager in Sacramento, Calif.

Recently, Miller was surprised when a client called requesting a prescription authorization only to learn PetMed Express was in on the conversation. When Miller refused, the client became distressed.

"We don't authorize prescriptions by fax or phone; clients must pick them up," she says. "The client was upset, and I felt like PetMed Express egged it on."

Company representatives remained silent when Dr. Sidney Lehr, of Delray Beach, Fla., came to the phone.

"The only reason I knew they were on the line is because my receptionist told me," Lehr says. "No one from the company bothered to make me aware."

Turning the tables

While the company's business tactics might seem underhanded, they're not necessarily illegal. AVMA's principles of veterinary medical ethics state, "Veterinarians should honor a client's request for prescription in lieu of dispensing." Company Chief Executive Officer Menderes Akdag claims practitioners are shirking their duty.

"Our process is we fax the veterinarian first, and if we don't hear from them, we call. We also call the client," he says. "By not responding or authorizing the prescription for us, veterinarians are limiting consumers' freedom of choice. We operate as a convenience to the consumer, and we're confident we apply to all rules and regulations."

Spotlighting the issue

Curry-Galvin is not so sure. At presstime, the AVMA official claimed she possessed evidence that PetMed Express recently sold unapproved foreign drugs to a New Jersey pet owner - a federal violation that cost the company $100,000 in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002. She's also compiling more than 50 veterinarian complaints for a meeting before Food and Drug Administration officials.

"There's great room for education among regulators, and I'm working to summarize the profession's concerns for them," she says. "The lion's share of complaints we received are about PetMed Express, but there are plenty of other bad actors out there. When you get a number of complaints, you have to think that there's a running theme."

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