Houston veterinarians protest forced disclosure of pet/client information

Houston veterinarians protest forced disclosure of pet/client information

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Dec 01, 2009

Houston — Veterinarians in Houston are fighting a 10-year-old ordinance that forces veterinarians to turn over client information for the purposes of pet licensing or pay a $500 fine. The city recently ratcheted up calls for compliance by veterinarians.

The 1989 ordinance mandates Houston veterinarians cough up licensing information to the city's Department of Health after vaccinating pets for rabies.

That information in turn is being directed to the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care (BARC). Additional information being turned over includes the breed description, whether the animal has been spayed or neutered, a rabies vaccination tag serial number and the name and address of the pet owner.

Veterinarians have the option of acting as a licensing authority at the time of vaccine administration.

Failure by veterinarians to comply with the city ordinance is punishable by a $500 fine, according to Houston Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department Director Alfred Moran.

In late September, Moran issued a letter telling veterinarians that each additional day of violation would result in a separate offense and a new $500 fine.

"We have heard from quite a few veterinarians who are not going to submit the client names until they are fined," says Dr. Jeffrey Chalkey, president-elect of the Harris County Veterinary Medical Association (HCVMA).

Veterinarians are afraid that clients will leave Houston practices in favor of clinics in unincorporated areas around the city that wouldn't be subject to the law, Chalkey says.

"They are forcing veterinarians with the threat of fines to turn clients names over with personal information instead of working with us," he says.

In a survey of nearly 50 veterinarians in his association, Chalkey says about half reported they wouldn't submit their client's information until they were fined.

"Tell us another profession that is required to submit to the city its client list in order for the city to gain license fees," Chalkey says.

Though he agrees it would be beneficial to license all pets, owners are balking at the heavy-handed enforcement by BARC, Chalkey says. He would favor an alternative to this plan to gain compliance.

"It seems to me the public is not happy with BARC and does not want to support it," he says. "We think a healthy BARC is good for the city and good for the public, and most clients would agree with that if they felt their money was being properly spent. But there's no perception of value from getting a Houston license at this point in time from the client's perspective."

When told about the new order, Chalkey says many of his clients have said they would be uncomfortable with their veterinarians turning over information about them and their pet to BARC.

Moran agrees that BARC, which announced Oct. 1 plans for $3.3 million in shelter renovations, has had its problems.

"I do not support BARC in its current state, either. I think it is quite broken. That is why we have gotten involved in turning it around," says Moran.

"But where do you start? The fact is, we're turning around BARC, but we are not depending on registration fees to do it. It is not going to be the panacea to fix BARC. The panacea is going to be excellence in everything we do out there."

El Paso and Dallas also enforce similar programs, Moran says, denying that the city of Houston is simply trying to drum up additional revenue through veterinarians.

"We think it is important to have animals registered," Moran says, pointing to the program as a way to keep track of pets and how many of them are vaccinated for rabies in the interest of public health.

Attorneys for the HCVMA are reviewing the ordinance, Chalkey says.