Much to the dismay of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the veterinary community in general, a new Fairness to Pet Owners Act has been introduced in Congress. The bipartisan bill—HR 4023—takes the position that the veterinary clinic is not the best place to buy pet medication and aims to “promote competition” by encouraging pet owners to comparison shop for their pets’ medications.
HR 4023 would require veterinarians to provide clients with written prescriptions for domesticated household animals regardless of whether or not such a prescription is requested by the client. Further, veterinarians would be prohibited from charging a prescription-writing fee or asking clients to sign a liability waiver related to writing the prescription. Introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah)—who sponsored the last Fairness to Pet Owners Act in 2012, then HR 1406—and co-sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) Feb. 10, the bill is currently awaiting review by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The AVMA’s Governmental Relations Committee says it is reviewing the latest iteration of the bill. Absent from the new version is the requirement to provide written notification of a client’s purchasing options along with the prescription. Added to HR 4023, however, is an exemption for drugs administered while providing acute care—although Ashley Morgan, DVM, assistant director of the AVMA’s Governmental Relations Division, says the AVMA is unclear on what “acute care” means exactly.
The AVMA has yet to issue an official stance, but the association issued an action alert encouraging its members to oppose the bill, saying, “It is burdensome and unnecessary to require a written prescription be provided, regardless of whether or not the client is having the prescription filled by the veterinarian. Clients already have the flexibility to fill a prescription at their veterinary clinic or off-site at a pharmacy of their choice.”
Brakke Consulting senior consultant John Volk says the legislation basically encourages people to consider sources of pet medications other than a veterinarian. “If a veterinarian is obligated to write a script and tell [clients] they can fill it there or somewhere else, in fact the veterinarian is compelling them to look elsewhere and compare in a way that they aren’t now,” Volk says.
Based on a study conducted by Brakke, he says, veterinarians may be vulnerable in this area. “Only 34 percent [of pet owners] would only buy from the veterinarian regardless,” Volk says. “We’ve got some pretty hard data that if given the choice there’s a good chance veterinarians are going to lose a fair amount of business.”
At the same time, he continues, veterinarians still have the advantage of convenience. And there is already prevalent advertising directing pet owners to buy pet medications at online pharmacies or retail stores. “They’ve already advertised that they have these products,” Volk says. “There’s no shortage of awareness from a pet owner’s standpoint.”
In a market of consumers who are very much aware of their options, the AVMA’s Morgan says the bill simply places an onerous regulatory burden on veterinarians. In fact, the AVMA led veterinarians and veterinary students to speak with legislators about the negative impacts of the bill during its annual Legislative Fly-In Feb. 9-11. They hope HR 4023 will meet the same fate as 2012’s HR 1406—it never made it out of committee.
Morgan believes a helpful addition to the debate over mandatory prescription writing might be a promised but as-yet-unpublished report from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Gleaned from testimony and discussion that took place during an October 2012 public workshop, the report would provide the FTC’s findings on and recommendations for competition and consumer protection regarding the pet medication industry. Veterinarians and AVMA leadership participated as panelists during the workshop. “It seems premature to consider a ‘solution,’ such as this sweeping federal mandate, prior to publication of the report and clear identification of whether a problem actually exists,” the AVMA states in its action alert.
U.S. House of Representatives Veterinary Medicine Caucus member Rep. Kurt Schrader, DVM (D-Ore.), agrees. “I think it would have been useful to wait for the FTC’s findings before introducing legislation,” Schrader says. “My principle concern has always been that this bill could lead to violations of doctor-patient confidentiality and allow uninformed retailers to make decisions about medication protocols without the patient or the doctor’s consent.”
The AVMA and other state associations, including the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, have cited concerns about retail pharmacy mistakes when it comes to veterinary prescriptions. And while supporters of the bill claim that pet owners meet resistance when asking veterinarians to provide prescriptions, Morgan says the AVMA’s Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics state that veterinarians should honor a client’s request for a written prescription and a majority of states have a policy or law requiring it.
“As a veterinarian for over 35 years, I always provided my clients a prescription upon request, and with veterinarians routinely polling as one of the most trustworthy professions in the country, it is difficult to understand why this bill is remotely necessary,” Schrader says. “To me this is a solution in search of a problem.”
It’s yet to be seen if this session’s Fairness to Pet Owners Act will have any more success than its predecessor. It may be telling that many co-sponsors of the original Fairness to Pet Owners Act—Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.)—are not listed as cosponsors of HR 4023. There is also no Senate version of the bill.