Noneconomic damages, animals' legal status on AVMA legislative agenda

Board names horse slaughter, veterinary workforce as priorities
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The AVMA is supporting passage of federal laws preventing plaintiff animal owners from recovering noneconomic damages in the event of animal loss or injury and also preserving the legal status of animals as property.

Both measures are part of a comprehensive legislative agenda for the 110th Congress recommended by the Legislative Advisory Committee and approved by the Executive Board during its April 12-14 meeting.

Other AVMA priorities include seeing that legislation is enacted that will shore up the veterinary workforce and make affordable health care coverage available to practice owners as well as defeating prohibitions on horse slaughter and the types of antimicrobial approved for food-producing animals.

Noneconomic damages, legal status

The board's approval to actively pursue passage of laws concerning noneconomic damages and the legal status of pets is consistent with AVMA policies on each of the emotionally charged matters (see "Compensatory values for animals beyond their property value" and "Ownership vs. guardianship").

The AVMA must act because, according to the Legislative Advisory Committee, animal rights groups are promoting in the judicial system the inclusion of noneconomic damage awards to plaintiffs whose pets have died or been injured. These groups are also seeking—sometimes successfully—to introduce state legislation for the same goal.

Currently, no federal legislation allows for noneconomic damages in animal cases. The LAC believes that now is the time to educate congressional staffers and recruit allies to prepare for what the committee anticipates will be an inevitable federal battle.

Likewise, no federal legislation proposing a change to the legal status of animals from property is pending before Congress. Animal rights groups have, however, met with limited success at the local and state levels at redefining the owner/property relationship to guardian/ward.

As the human-animal bond continues to strengthen, the AVMA must clearly articulate the reasons for preserving the traditional legal framework that guides veterinarians, according to the LAC. Moreover, the committee said the AVMA should not assume that Congress understands the importance of preserving the legal framework that classifies animals as property rather than persons.

For these reasons, the LAC states that the AVMA must coordinate grassroots communication of its position before animal rights groups generate an overwhelming surge of advocacy on the basis of emotional and irrational arguments.  

Active pursuit of passage

The board also approved recommendations by the LAC designating a number of other initiatives as a high priority for the AVMA requiring active pursuit of passage. They are as follows:

  • Appropriations for and implementation of the National Veterinary Medical Service Act passed by Congress in 2003, are needed. The law created a loan repayment program for veterinarians who agree to work in underserved geographic and professional areas where veterinarians are in short supply, and make themselves available to assist during an animal disease or zoonotic outbreak. The NVMSA program is nonfunctional, however, because the Department of Agriculture has not completed the rules for the program.
  • Passage of the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act (H.R. 1232/S. 746) would establish a competitive grant program to build capacity in veterinary medical education and expand the workforce of veterinarians engaged in public health and biomedical research.
  • Work with the American Association of Equine Practitioners to develop legislation addressing the welfare needs of the nation's unwanted/retired horse population. This bill would be an alternative to the Virgie S. Arden American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which the AVMA, AAEP, and numerous other groups say would, if enacted, lead to crisis by prohibiting 100,000 to 115,000 unwanted horses from being humanely euthanized annually. The alternative legislation would deal with several concerns, including euthanasia, standards for horse retirement centers, and proper disposal of animal carcasses.
  • Amending the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to include all animal species slaughtered for commercial use under federal inspection is also a high priority of the AVMA. The law currently mandates humane slaughter for cows, pigs, sheep, and other livestock slaughtered at federally inspected facilities but does not include birds, rabbits, and other commercially slaughtered species.
  • Secure permanent federal funding for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank, the primary source of scientifically based recommendations for withdrawal intervals for food-producing animals after extralabel drug use. The database is the primary source of residue mitigation information for food animals exposed to environmental contaminants. For FY 2007, the congressional resolution that provides government funding through Sept. 30, 2007, did not contain earmarks for FARAD, and the database is without federal monies for FY 2007. Funding for FY 2008 was unknown. At press time, FARAD was slated to shut down all public access on May 15, 2007, and without remaining funds, maintain the existing databank for an additional six to nine months. Without permanent, multiyear funding—$2.5 million a year for three to five years—FARAD will discontinue all activities early in 2008.
  • Passing legislation that would expand health savings accounts, which are high-deductible insurance plans that allow the holder to accumulate equity in an account to be accessed, tax-free, for out-of-pocket health care expenditures. Funds not used for health care may be used for other purposes after being subject to a tax.
  • Small Business Health Plan legislation would allow businesses to pool together in national associations to achieve economy of scale and offer affordable, competitive insurance plans to member businesses. Currently, compliance with individual state mandates for a national plan is cost-prohibitive. The AVMA cannot offer Group Health and Life Insurance Trust plans in seven states. An SBHP law would not only allow the AVMA to offer GHLIT to members in all 50 states, the AVMA could also offer plans to members' employees.
  • The Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Tax Credit Act of 2007 (H.R. 1217/S. 285) would amend the federal tax code to provide a credit of up to $500,000 in a taxable year to certain CAFOs for the cost of complying with environmental protection regulations.

Active pursuit of defeat

The AVMA has also identified a number of bills for defeat during this 110th Congress. They are as follows:

  • The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007 (H.R. 962/S. 549) would amend federal law to purportedly preserve the effectiveness of medically important antimicrobials used in the treatment of human and animal disease. The measures would phase out the use of certain antimicrobials for nontherapeutic purposes in food-producing animals. If enacted, the legislation would ban drugs by categories or classes of use instead of through risk-based, individual drug, use, and species decisions. AVMA entities such as the Council on Biologic and Therapeutic Agents, Food Safety Advisory Committee, and Council on Public Health and Regulatory Veterinary Medicine are opposed to the legislation.
  • The Virgie S. Arden American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311) would amend the Horse Protection Act to prohibit the shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donating of any horse or other equid to be slaughtered for human consumption. The AVMA, along with the AAEP and American Quarter Horse Association, are among some 200 groups in a coalition opposed to the legislation because, among other things, it fails to address the welfare of thousands of unwanted horses that would be affected by the bill.

Read more about the AVMA's legislative agenda in the June 1 JAVMA News.