February 01, 2003

 

 A full plate - February 1, 2003

Posted on January 15, 2003
 

New Congress considers legislation important to veterinarians and animal health


Although the threat of war with Iraq and the specter of terrorism seemingly monopolize the attention of lawmakers in the nation's capital, the 108th Congress, which convened Jan. 7, will take up matters affecting veterinarians and animal health and welfare.

Bills calling for increasing animal drug availability, expanding association health care plans, and forgiving veterinary student debt are some proposals the new Republican-controlled Congress will be looking at in the years leading up to the 2004 elections.

While most introduced legislation never becomes law, veterinary-related issues have usually found a listening ear on Capitol Hill. Just recently, the AVMA successfully lobbied for passage of a provision requiring that the chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps hold the rank of brigadier general (see JAVMA, Jan. 1, 2003, page 14).

In addition, the presence of two veterinarians in the halls of Congress raises the profile of issues important to the profession. Dr. Wayne Allard of Colorado defeated his Democratic challenger this past November to retain his Senate seat. His Republican colleague, Dr. John Ensign, was elected to the Senate from Nevada in 2000. Both men have worked on legislation important to the profession.

Dr. Dean Goeldner, assistant director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., noted that Republicans tend to be supportive of legislation helping small businesses, which benefits veterinary practice owners. The downside is that veterinary programs requiring appropriations—such as continued modernization of the Department of Agriculture's laboratory facilities in Ames, Iowa; the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD); chronic wasting disease; and Animal Welfare Act enforcement—will be a harder sell in the tight budgetary environment that legislators face this year.

The AVMA's top legislative priority this Congress is passage of the Minor Use and Minor Species Animal Health Act, Dr. Goeldner explained. The AVMA, along with a coalition of animal-interest groups, unsuccessfully pressed Congress to adopt the legislation in the 107th Congress and expects to reintroduce the language early in the 108th Congress. If passed, it would offer incentives to pharmaceutical companies encouraging them to develop drugs for less common animal species and indications.

Republican control of the Senate should increase the chances for passage of the MUMS bill, as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is the primary sponsor and Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the new chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is also a strong MUMS supporter.

Another important piece of legislation is the Small Business Health Fairness Act. The AVMA and other professional and trade associations are backing the bill because it would allow established associations to offer health insurance to their members and their members' employees in all the states, without the burden or barriers of individual state insurance mandates.

The legislation would allow millions of uninsured Americans who are either self-employed or employed by a small business to purchase competitively priced, quality health care for themselves and their families.

Passage of the Veterinary Health Enhancement Act continues to be a priority for many veterinary students. Similar to the National Health Service Corps scholarship and loan repayment programs, this legislation would provide for scholarships or debt assistance to veterinarians willing to work after graduation in rural or inner-city areas where veterinary services are scarce.

Of concern to the AVMA is the effort by some lawmakers to restrict certain drugs available to food animals. Legislation introduced but not passed in the 107th Congress would have banned the subtherapeutic use of some antimicrobials in poultry and livestock because of concerns about antimicrobial resistance in humans. The bill also would have prohibited the therapeutic use of fluoroquinolones in poultry.

If reintroduced and enacted, the bill would phase out, over two years, the non-therapeutic use of penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides—including, but not limited to, erythromycin and tylosin-lincomycin, bacitracin, virginiamycin, aminoglycosides, and sulfonamides.

The designated antimicrobials could still be used to treat sick animals. They could also continue to be used as growth promotants and to prevent disease if the drug manufacturers could demonstrate within two years that there is no harm to human health resulting from such use.

Congress may also consider legislation that would prohibit slaughtering horses in the United States for human consumption, as well as ban the interstate and international shipment of horseflesh or live horses intended for slaughter.

In addition, the Congress could consider legislation restricting private ownership of dangerous exotic animal such as lions, tigers, and cougars. Supported by the Humane Society of the United States, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act would not ban all private ownership of these species, but would outlaw the commerce of these animals for use as pets.

The AVMA hasn't weighed in on the bill, but it strongly opposes the keeping of wild carnivore animal species as pets and believes that all commercial traffic of these animals for such a purpose should be prohibited.

Any number of animal welfare issues will come before Congress and agencies, especially the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.

Dr. Goeldner wouldn't be surprised if the Puppy Protection Act, known also as the puppy mill bill, were to reemerge. That bill, which was successfully opposed by the AVMA, animal researchers, and the pet industry, sought to improve conditions for dogs and puppies at puppy mills by addressing socialization and breeding issues, and creates a "three strikes" system for chronic violators of the Animal Welfare Act.

The AVMA and other opponents were worried that language in the bill wasn't clearly defined and could have unintended consequences, such as negatively affecting animal health.

As with all matters of animal welfare that the AVMA addresses, Dr. Goeldner said, "The AVMA will continue to advocate for legislation that balances sound science and legitimate animal welfare concerns."

Legislation the AVMA supports:

Minor Use and Minor Species Animal Health Act
Offers incentives to pharmaceutical companies encouraging them to develop drugs for less common animal species and indications.

Small Business Health Fairness Act
Allows established associations to offer health insurance to their members and their members' employees in all the states, without the burden or barriers of individual state insurance mandates.

Veterinary Health Enhancement Act
Provides for scholarships or debt assistance to veterinarians willing to work after graduation in rural or inner-city areas where veterinary services are scarce.