How the Maine VMA Rallied to Help Defeat Adverse Legislation - A Case Study

Posted 17 May 2011

Prepared with the assistance of Bill Bell, executive director, Maine Veterinary Medical Association

Maine state legislators recently and unanimously rejected a proposal quite similar to H.R. 1406, the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011, which is now pending in Congress. The federal legislation would mandate that all veterinarians issue clients a written prescription for any drug dispensed, whether or not such a prescription is requested by the client.

The Maine legislation, entitled LD 676, An Act to Enact Requirements Concerning Veterinary Prescriptions, was sponsored by the state Senate majority leader, whose office acknowledged that the senator had introduced the bill "at the request of Wal-Mart's lobbyist."

The original Maine legislation would have required not only the dispensation of the prescription along with any medicine, but also verbal and written notification to the client that the prescription could be filled by an outside pharmacy. As soon as the Maine Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) printed and circulated the bill to all veterinarians – along with legislators' contact information – legislators began assuring veterinarians that they would oppose the measure.

Republican legislators, elected to the majority in both chambers of the Maine Legislature for the first time in decades, agreed that the bill represented the very governmental overregulation of business they had campaigned against. Democratic legislators were quick to label the measure "the Wal-Mart bill against veterinarians." By the time the bill came to public hearing in late April, the bill's sponsor was quietly telling colleagues that he would be dropping the "verbal and written notification" requirements and mandating only the issuance of prescriptions to all clients, whether or not such prescriptions were requested.

Approximately 50 of Maine's 400 veterinarians, wearing lapel stickers stating "My Veterinary Practice is a Small Business," filled the Agriculture Committee hearing room. Many other veterinarians had contacted committee members, one of whom stated that he had received more emails opposing this measure than any other issue. Twenty veterinarians spoke against the measure, as did a representative of Maine's spay-neuter program and a vendor serving veterinarians. The only proponents were the bill's sponsor, the Wal-Mart lobbyist and the Maine Merchants Association.

The MVMA, which was cited from the podium by the Wal-Mart lobbyist for having orchestrated attendance at the hearing, did not at any time distribute to its members talking points or any kind of "scripting." Instead, the veterinarians themselves spoke clearly to the reasons why the proposal was cumbersome, unnecessary, unfair and potentially harmful to their patients. One referral hospital cited three cases in which pets had suffered severely from incorrect dispensation of medicine by retail pharmacists. A young equine veterinarian outlined the absurdity of having to write prescriptions in the midst of an emergency farm call. Perhaps most impressive to committee members were the assurances by veterinarians that they already, as a matter of ethics and good client relations, provide their clients with prescriptions and pharmacy recommendations when warranted.

AVMA Alternate Delegate Dr. Anne Del Borgo distributed to the committee a letter from AVMA pointing out that, while Maine and a number of other states require that veterinary practices provide copies of prescriptions upon client request, mandating automatic dispensation of such prescriptions would make Maine the only state in the nation with such a law.

At an Agriculture Committee work session a week after the hearing on LD 676, the 13 committee members voted unanimously (and without discussion) that the bill "Ought Not to Pass." Subsequently, the bill was placed in the files of the Maine Senate and officially declared "Dead."

In reviewing the successful campaign to defeat the bill, MVMA Executive Director Bill Bell had a number of observations.

"This was such a bad proposal that it might have failed of its own accord," Bell said. "Obviously, however, we could not take such a chance."

Bell noted the importance of having an effective communications system in place in advance.

"Having upgraded our email system last year turned out to have been a critical investment," he said. "As soon as the bill was printed, we were able to send it to almost all of our members, along with a link to the Maine Legislature's website containing email links to all legislators. Fortunately, this legislative website also features a town-by-town 'find your legislator' feature."

This same information was also quickly mailed hard copy to all Maine veterinarians.

"As staff, my office has learned that many veterinarians don't have time to read emails until Saturday afternoons, if then," Bell said. "It was important, despite the obvious duplication with email, to get hard copy in front of our members."

Bell also stressed the importance of "keeping it simple."

"The insulting nature of this proposal was self-evident," he said. There was "no need to suggest talking points to our members. They know far better than I the medical reasons not to send every client out the door with a prescription to be filled at a pharmacy. Every member made their own best arguments, in their own words, to their own legislators."

A second mailing (both electronic and US Postal Service) to all veterinarians once the Joint Legislative Committee handling the bill had been announced, was also important.

"A discussion early on with the Senate committee chair suggested that the senator's personal friendship with his hometown veterinarian might trump any obligation to support a bill sponsored by the Senate majority leader, " Bell said. "It suddenly appeared very possible to focus on the 13 committee members, and go for the kill."

A third mailing helped fill the committee room with veterinarians the day of the hearing.

"Having lapel stickers identifying ourselves as veterinarians showed the committee members our numbers," Bell said. "We also agreed before the hearing who the first five speakers on our side would be. We asked our most experienced former legislative chair to speak first, knowing that he would likely get most of the questions."

Bell suggests that other state veterinary associations should have similar success if faced with similar proposals.

"At the state level, most legislators not only know their veterinarian; they also have trusted their veterinarian with the care of one or more family pets," he said. "Defeating such obviously bad legislation is mostly a matter of making it easy for our members to contact their legislators at the right time."

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