Alternative medicine, pit bull-type dogs, and lawsuits over emotional distress are all much more striking subjects than public policy.
But state and local legislators are forming public policy on these and other topics that impact the practice of veterinary medicine. So, some state and local veterinary medical associations have rallied responses.
The Arizona VMA acted to defeat a bill that would have allowed nonveterinarians to treat animals with complementary and alternative therapies. The Chicago VMA helped replace a proposal to ban pit bull-type dogs with an alternate proposal for a dangerous-dog ordinance. Members of the Hawaii VMA mobilized to squelch a bill that would have allowed damages for emotional distress in lawsuits regarding the loss of a pet.
And leaders from the three VMAs are sharing their public policy success stories in venues such as the recent AVMA Annual Convention in Honolulu and the December 2006 AVMA Public Policy Symposium in Chicago.
Emily Kane, executive director of the Arizona VMA, said legislators in her state hadn't proposed many bills recently that affected veterinarians—until this year.
The Arizona VMA's lobbyist alerted the association to a proposal that would expand exemptions to the veterinary practice act, allowing nonveterinarians to perform complementary and alternative therapies. The association had little notice to mount opposition because legislators filed the bill not long before a hearing.
"We weren't sure how successful we were going to be, especially since we had such a short time frame," Kane said.
Association leaders faxed a message to members about the situation, reasons for opposing the bill, and whom to call on the committee handling the bill. The message asked members to e-mail legislators and copy the association address. A similar message went out by e-mail.
The association soon received copies of hundreds of messages from members to legislators.
"We were quite overwhelmed about how aggressively they were pursuing this issue," Kane said.
Veterinarians with contacts called key legislators, and association leaders met with legislators on the committee handling the bill. Association leaders asked a member from each district to contact that district's legislator. Members of animal control and anti-cruelty groups also sent letters supporting the association's position.
Later, a second alert went out asking all veterinarians to call legislators because the vote would be close. Members called legislators in large numbers.
"We went to the hearing, and we did not know when we got there whether or not we would be successful," Kane said.
Representatives of the Arizona VMA and the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board testified. Representatives of animal control and anti-cruelty groups also attended the hearing, ready to speak on behalf of the veterinarians.
To the relief of the veterinarians, the committee voted 4-3 against the bill.
"We mustered every resource that we could get our hands on, and it was truly a grassroots effort," Kane said.
For the next legislative session, the Arizona VMA plans to purchase a Web product that will enable members to e-mail legislators about the issues more easily.
"We need to get ourselves in a position to be proactive on some of these issues, and that's the direction we're moving in," Kane said.
Dr. Shannon Greeley, secretary of the Chicago VMA, said her association reinstituted its legislative committee about two years ago when state legislators proposed that veterinarians should collect a surcharge on rabies vaccinations. Members of the Chicago VMA didn't want to act as tax collectors. The bill became instead an increase in the price of rabies tags for owners who don't spay or neuter their dogs—but also an undesirable extra upfront cost for veterinarians.
The Chicago VMA's legislative committee continued afterward with the objective of having a voice in public policy.
"What we've been experiencing," said Dr. Greeley, chair of the committee, "is a lack of regard when it comes to local animal legislation. And I think we are mirroring the problem that is happening throughout the country."
Dr. Greeley said veterinary associations at the state and local levels are active when they can be, but politicians do not solicit their input.
"I have been astonished to realize how few politicians know about us," she said. "They don't even know we exist."
The Chicago VMA is trying to generate awareness by sending letters to the mayor and aldermen. Association leaders are working with veterinarians who are willing to attend city council meetings. The association is taking baby steps toward becoming a sounding board for legislation, Dr. Greeley said.
"We need to be involved in the process early enough that we can provide input," she said. "We've been pretty much putting out fires."
For example, the Chicago VMA was part of a coalition of groups that came together to create an alternative proposal to a city ban on pit bull-type dogs.
The groups in the coalition agreed on a list of recommendations for an ordinance targeting dangerous dogs instead of a specific type of dog. Part of the proposal is to increase penalties for people who let their dogs roam and whose dogs bite.
The coalition also created a standing task force to advise the city council committee handling the issue. Recently, the committee heard three hours of testimony on the alternative proposal.
Dr. Greeley said legislation regarding pit bull-type dogs or specific breeds appears to be dormant at the moment, but it has been a recurring issue at the state and local levels in Illinois.
"We are looking toward effective statewide dangerous-dog legislation," she said.
Dr. Greeley added that someday, the Chicago VMA's legislative committee would like to propose ideas to politicians rather than simply reacting.
Dr. Eric Ako, executive director of the Hawaii VMA, said his association only recently re-entered the arena of public policy.
"The Hawaii VMA had not been in a position to lobby in any way," Dr. Ako said. "We had a very divisive issue about 15 years ago, and this was regarding our rabies quarantine system."
Members of the veterinary association were unable to agree on a position on the state system of quarantining animals upon entry to prevent introduction of rabies. Therefore, they chose not to lobby as a group on that issue or any other in recent years.
Then the Hawaiian Humane Society informed the Hawaii VMA about a bill that would allow veterinarians who held a license in any other state to practice in the islands without passing the state licensing examination. Leaders of the veterinary association quickly mailed a message to the members, who agreed on opposing the bill as a group.
The bill didn't turn out to pose a big problem, but the humane society soon informed the veterinary association of a bigger problem—a bill that would allow people to sue over emotional distress resulting from the loss of a pet, with no exemption for veterinarians.
Dr. Ako remembered that he had received a portfolio of resources on local legislative issues from the AVMA. When he contacted the AVMA for further assistance, the AVMA in turn contacted a lobbyist who knew the chairwoman of the committee handling the bill. The chairwoman, after talking with the lobbyist, decided to hold the bill in committee.
"We really escaped it by a very narrow margin," Dr. Ako said. "We're looking to hire a lobbyist."
In the meantime, the Hawaii VMA is trying to stay on top of the bill in committee.
Also, association leaders have begun e-mailing members about this issue and other legislation while continuing to cover legislative issues in the quarterly newsletter.
"I foresee that this is going to be a growing battle," Dr. Ako said. "It's who you know and how fast you can move."
Veterinary associations will share other stories from the legislative front during the second AVMA Public Policy Symposium on "How to Achieve Results in State and Local Advocacy" from Dec. 2-3 in Chicago.
The AVMA Task Force on State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs hosted the first symposium in 2004. After the sunset of the task force, the AVMA Executive Board created the State Advocacy Committee, which will host the second symposium.
The AVMA Executive Board also has created a State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department in the Communications Division to assist state and local associations with issues of public policy.
The department maintains state legislative resources on the AVMA Web site under Advocacy/State. One section provides AVMA policies and background papers on legislative issues, including a new summary report about the language in practice acts that does or doesn't cover complementary and alternative medicine. Other sections supply tools for grassroots advocacy, such as tips for writing effective letters, along with a variety of links and contact information.