May 15, 2006


 AVMA leaders lobby for more public health veterinarians

Executive Board, HAC travel to D.C.

By R. Scott Nolen
Posted May 1, 2006  

The AVMA Executive Board and House Advisory Committee were in Washington, D.C., this April lobbying lawmakers to co-sponsor legislation aimed at increasing the number of veterinarians working in public health and biomedical research—areas experiencing a critical shortage of veterinarians.

The AVMA and Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges consider the Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act (S. 914/H.R. 2206) an important piece of legislation.

Introduced in the Senate by Wayne Allard of Colorado, a veterinarian, and in the House by Charles Pickering of Mississippi, the bill authorizes competitive grants to initiate and support public health and biomedical research programs at veterinary schools and colleges. Currently, the Senate version has 18 co-sponsors and the House version 45.

The lobbying efforts were part of the AVMA leadership's biennial legislative visit to the capital, April 2-4, hosted by the Association's Washington, D.C., office.

"The biennial visit provides our leadership the opportunity to learn more about public policy, the political process, and the work of the Governmental Relations Division," said Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, interim director of the AVMA GRD.

"AVMA leaders also had the opportunity to explain to lawmakers how critically important the Veterinary Workforce Expansion Act is to protecting our nation from emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases, many of which could be used as biologic weapons," Dr. Lutschaunig added.

Prior to meeting with their members of Congress, board and HAC members were briefed on various subjects. Judy Schneider of the Congressional Research Service explained the complexities of the legislative process. James Clarke, a senior vice president at the American Society of Association Executives, talked about how associations such as the AVMA influence public policy. Matthew Green, PhD, an assistant professor of politics at Catholic University of America, prepped AVMA leaders on how to effectively make their case to their representatives. David Blockstien, PhD, a senior scientist with the National Council for Science and the Environment, explained how veterinarians can use their credibility to effect policy changes. Dr. Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian and head of the Department of Animal Health for the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, highlighted her responsibilities for overseeing the health care of the zoo's collection.

Association health plans 

Duane Musser, a senior associate at a government affairs consulting firm, discussed the status of association health plan legislation. The rising cost of health care makes it difficult if not impossible for small business owners to offer health insurance to their employees. 

Current laws prohibit AVMA members from purchasing coverage from the AVMA Group Health & Life Insurance Trust for their employees. In addition, regulations in seven states prevent the GHLIT from providing health insurance to AVMA members.

Passage of the Small Business Health Fairness Act (S. 406/H.R. 525) or similar legislation would allow small business owners to join together in associations, such as the AVMA, and provide affordable health insurance to their employees. Moreover, AVMA members in all 50 states would be able to purchase affordable health insurance for themselves and their families.

Although the House has voted in favor of association health plan legislation several times, most recently in July 2005, the Senate has yet to follow suit. This past November, however, Michael Enzi of Wyoming introduced the Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act (S. 1955). Its chances of passing are promising, which is why the AVMA is lobbying for insertion of wording in the bill that would specifically allow the AVMA to continue offering individual member plans in addition to group plans for employees.  

Pets and tort law  

Tort law expert Victor E. Schwartz spoke about the drive to award noneconomic compensatory damages when a pet is harmed or killed as a result of negligence. Schwartz, co-author of the most widely used tort casebook in U.S. law schools, believes such awards are a bad idea because veterinarians and pet owners would face increased insurance premiums, prices, and liability.

A tort is a wrongful act that injures a person, the person's property, or reputation and for which the person is entitled to economic compensation. So, if a pet is harmed or killed, the owner can sue to recoup the animal's market value plus additional expenses, such as the cost of training, Schwartz explained.

Torts can entail punitive damages, which are awarded to punish the offender. A plaintiff might also receive noneconomic compensatory damages—so-called soft damages—for pain and suffering resulting from the harmful action.

Most states allow for economic and punitive damages in cases involving the death or injury of an animal. Yet animal rights lawyers are working to expand tort law to allow soft damages awards for animal owners. Schwartz says these lawyers are not seeking financial gain, but are instead ideologically driven.

"There is a difference between some personal injury lawyers and PETA. (PETA's) goal, as I understand it, is not merely to add this element of damages to animal cases, but to build an edifice where animals are treated exactly the same as people," he said.

Tort law is unlike any other area of law because of its unpredictability. "It's organic, it changes, it's alive, and it's made up by courts," Schwartz said. "Less than 5 percent of U.S. tort law is statutory."

One likely outcome of soft damages awards would be high liability insurance premiums for veterinarians, Schwartz said. This, in turn, could harm animals since their owners might no longer be able to afford veterinary care. By way of example, Schwartz noted how in personal injury cases, soft damages can be up to 10 times greater than economic compensation.

"This area of damage is so speculative that if I ran an insurance company, I would be very, very concerned," he said. Pharmaceutical companies might be less willing to invest in researching and developing new animal drugs. The cost of boarding could skyrocket.

To win against animal rights ideologues, Schwartz says veterinarians must speak plainly about the unintended consequences of allowing soft damages. When a court is asked to change tort law with regard to animals, the AVMA should file an amicus curiae brief explaining why the law should remain unchanged, he added.

The profession is highly regarded, which carries a lot of weight with lawmakers, according to Schwartz. "By having a good reputation," he said, "by being well thought of, you're going to have more political weight than maybe even you realize in debates of this kind."