AVMA staff members explained in two workshops in January why the profession needs representation in government and how animal welfare policy is formed.
The development sessions were among five offered during the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference, Chicago, Jan. 9-11 (see page 432).
Other workshop topics were membership involvement as a recruitment and retention tool, legal issues facing not-for-profit organizations, and leading practices in serving clients.
Promoting good laws and killing bad ones
Adrian Hochstadt, JD, assistant director for state legislative and regulatory affairs in the AVMA Communications Division, said in a workshop on federal, state, and local advocacy that individual veterinarians can have an especially large impact in their state legislative districts when they present well-written, science-based materials and develop personal relationships with lawmakers. He noted that veterinarians enjoy a high degree of public trust and are largely seen as honest, which helps with advocacy.
Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division, said during the workshop that establishing relationships and credibility with state legislators can help the profession and potentially have national impact if they decide to seek federal office. He also encouraged veterinarians to visit members of Congress when they are home in their district offices or conducting town hall meetings in the district.
Members like to hear from their constituents and are often more relaxed and able to provide quality time when they are home, he said.
Hochstadt said the AVMA supports state veterinary medical associations in several ways, including legislative and regulatory alerts, assistance in finding coalition partners, drafting of testimony and talking points, background information, and grassroots training.
The AVMA is also performing outreach to law schools in connection with the issues of noneconomic damages and the value of pets. Hochstadt said it is important for future attorneys and judges to hear the veterinary profession's perspective on animal law.
The Vermont Supreme Court could rule this year on a case involving such noneconomic damages and pets. A lawsuit against a veterinarian and a compounding pharmacy alleges two cats died after they ate amlodipine chew tabs with a higher-than-prescribed drug concentration.
Among other issues that could come up in 2009, Hochstadt noted that California was yet to decide whether to tax veterinary services along with nonmedical services such as furniture repair.
"In this economic climate, it's not a surprise that taxes on services are being floated as a panacea," Hochstadt said.
Dr. Lutschaunig said the AVMA plans to work with the 111th Congress on issues of workforce expansion, funding and implementation of the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, funding for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, pay equity for veterinarians aligned with that of other health professionals who perform similar federal jobs, pet insurance, antimicrobial use in food animals, animal welfare, and small businesses.
He also said the AVMA Congressional Action Network is being rejuvenated with the goal of having an AVMA champion in every federal congressional district.
The AVMA PAC raised $443,000 in the 110th Congress through nearly 3,300 member contributions, Dr. Lutschaunig said. The PAC gave $480,500 to 162 candidates and national political parties during that term.
Taking action on animal welfare
In another workshop, Animal Welfare Division members explained how AVMA animal welfare policy is developed. Discussion progressed to how policies may be implemented and the various approaches to public policy, including the emergence of ballot initiatives.
Animal welfare scientist Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD, began by explaining that the basis of AVMA policy development is scientific knowledge and the practical aspects of application.
After researching the existing science and discussing related issues with stakeholders, the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee submits its recommendation(s) for policy or action on a subject to the Executive Board for its decision. An alternative path is through the House of Delegates. Resolutions may come to the HOD via member petition, an organization seated in the HOD, or the Executive Board.
Requests for action on an animal welfare issue may come from myriad sources, including committee or council members, constituent groups, nongovernmental organizations, staff, or the public. Dr. Patterson-Kane emphasized the importance of members' expertise in creating good policy.
"Diverse and expert input is critical if our policies are to be science-based, comprehensive, and practical," she said.
However, the path of a policy sometimes can be more complicated, which was the case with the AVMA's position on Proposition 2, a ballot initiative requiring that egg-laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant sows have room enough to lie down, stand, turn around, and fully extend their limbs.
In August 2008, the AVMA released a statement on the referendum after much debate on the merits of taking a position and what position to take, Dr. Patterson-Kane said.
Animal Welfare Division Director Gail C. Golab explained that while the Association generally defers to state VMAs on local issues, "When an issue has national implications, the AVMA recognizes its responsibility and others' expectations that we will provide some kind of guidance or response."
Dr. Patterson-Kane said the AVMA statement tried to communicate that while Proposition 2 was well-intentioned, the crafters of the proposal did not consider critical aspects of animal welfare. She conceded the issue did not lend itself well to the news media process.
"It was mostly interpreted as 'AVMA opposes Prop 2,' which was predictable but what we were doing our best to avoid," Dr. Patterson-Kane said. "We wanted to acknowledge the existence of some welfare concerns but also encourage people to ask themselves whether Proposition 2 was the best way to address them. We recognize the issue and our message was complex, but the time is gone when not responding is an option when something reaches this level of impact."
She said state ballot initiatives may become more common because of the increasing propensity by animal protection groups such as the Humane Society of the United States to put animal-related issues on statewide referendums, bypassing the legislative process. The HSUS first began its ballot initiative campaign with Proposition 117. It targeted the hunting of mountain lions and was passed in 1990 in California.
Dr. Golab said, "Commonly, stakeholders' refusal to communicate is what creates the opportunity for ballot initiatives. Good animal welfare decisions generally reflect contributions of expertise from multiple perspectives. If you want to have influence as well as good outcomes, you need to engage early in the process."