State affairs

AVMA helps behind the scenes in state governmental relations
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Pending bills in Alabama, South Carolina, and other states would restrict the veterinary services that could be provided by nonprofit organizations. New rules or proposals in numerous states address pharmaceutical matters such as compounding and prescription monitoring. Recent rulings in Vermont and Texas have denied noneconomic damages for the loss of a pet.

Much of the practice of veterinary medicine is governed at the state level. State VMAs advocate for their members to the states’ legislative, executive, and judicial branches. And quietly assisting the state VMAs with many issues is the AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department within the AVMA Communications Division.

In 2005, the AVMA established the State Advocacy Committee to support state VMAs in governmental relations. At the same time, the AVMA hired lawyer Adrian Hochstadt to direct the Association’s activities in this area.

Adrian Hochstadt
Adrian Hochstadt, who heads the AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department, speaks to students at the Northern Illinois University College of Law as part of the AVMA’s outreach program to share veterinary perspectives on legal issues. (Photos by R. Scott Nolen)

“I think traditionally the AVMA saw its role as advocating at the national level,” Hochstadt said. “But it became apparent, with more and more issues originating at the state level, that many of the state VMAs needed help.”

Today, the AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department comprises Hochstadt and lawyer Tara Southwell, state policy analyst. Together, they monitor developments in state governmental affairs and offer assistance to state VMAs ranging from research to drafting language for legislation.

Hochstadt and Southwell also participate in outreach efforts within and beyond the field of veterinary medicine. Within the field, they gather and share insights into state governmental relations. Beyond the field, they provide veterinary perspectives to state policymakers and the legal profession.

Helping hand

The AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department continually monitors pending state laws, regulations, and court cases that could impact veterinarians. Last year, the department sent about 1,300 alerts to state VMAs regarding governmental developments. The department also produces two electronic newsletters: a monthly state legislative update and a roundup of resources for executives of veterinary associations.

Big issues at the moment include the extent to which nonprofits should provide veterinary services and a variety of pharmaceutical matters, Hochstadt said. Perennial issues include scope of practice and animal welfare.

“We don’t lobby directly on behalf of state VMAs,” Hochstadt said. “Our assistance stops with background information, drafting language, and occasional letters, but we don’t testify, and, except in extraordinary circumstances, we don’t actually lobby at the state level.”

As they consult with state VMAs in Alabama, South Carolina, and other states where legislatures are considering bills to restrict veterinary services provided by nonprofits, Hochstadt and Southwell have shared relevant AVMA policy. It states, in part: “Where applicable, means testing to determine eligibility should be conducted in compliance with each organization’s internal documents for clients accessing veterinary services.” They also share what other states are doing.

Whether or not the AVMA has a policy on an issue, Southwell said, the AVMA will compile summaries of relevant state laws across the country or other background documents on request. She is collaborating now on a resource about state laws that protect purchasers of pets that develop medical problems following the purchase.

“If an issue surfaces that affects a number of states and we’ve had numerous inquiries, we’ll put something together as a resource not only for state VMAs, but for us,” Southwell said. “We don’t just get calls from members. We get calls from the public, too.”  

Tara Southwell
Tara Southwell, AVMA state policy analyst, at the AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill.

Hochstadt has found that veterinarians are usually on the same side of most state governmental matters. He and Southwell try not to step on any toes, usually not getting involved in a state issue without a state VMA asking and never doing something in a state without the state VMA knowing.

The State Advocacy Committee is the think tank that oversees AVMA activities in state governmental relations, Hochstadt said. He said the committee looks at the big picture rather than individual bills. Southwell added that the committee provides input for AVMA policies on state issues.

Across the country

The AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department assists VMAs in states small and large. In recent years, the department has assisted both the Vermont and Texas VMAs on court cases regarding noneconomic damages.

In 2009, the Vermont Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit that sought noneconomic damages for two pet cats that died as a result of alleged veterinary negligence. The AVMA and Vermont VMA filed a joint amicus brief on behalf of the veterinarians in the case.

Kathy Finnie, executive director of the Vermont VMA, said the AVMA also provided assistance to the state VMA in the form of general education on the issue, talking points to communicate with the association’s members, and tips on how to position the association with the press.

“It showed our members how closely the AVMA and state VMAs can work together and how valuable the AVMA can be to our association,” Finnie said.

Finnie said the Vermont VMA consults the AVMA at least once each legislative session. She said the AVMA has helped develop language for legislation and develop testimony for legislative hearings. Vermont is in the process of defining veterinary dentistry in its practice act, for example, and the AVMA has shared examples of definitions in other states.

In 2013, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a state appellate court’s decision that would have allowed noneconomic damages for a pet dog that was mistakenly euthanized by a shelter employee. The AVMA and Texas VMA filed amicus briefs in the case and contributed to the employee’s defense fund.

Chris Copeland, executive director of the Texas VMA, was in touch with Hochstadt throughout the case. The AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department helped communicate the importance of the case and implications of the case on a national level.

Copeland appreciates having the department as a resource. He finds the monthly legislative updates to be a helpful way to see what is happening in other states. He and the Texas VMA’s director of governmental relations, Elizabeth Choate, bounce ideas off Hochstadt and Southwell.

On occasion, Copeland said, Hochstadt and Southwell spot a Texas proposal of concern to veterinarians before the Texas VMA does.

“If we all used them to their fullest, it would really benefit all the state VMAs because they do a very good job for us,” Copeland said.

Outreach and impact

General outreach by the AVMA department encompasses veterinarians as well as policymakers and lawyers.

Every two years, the AVMA holds a Public Policy Symposium as a forum for leaders of state VMAs to learn and strategize about governmental relations. The State Advocacy Committee helps plan the symposium.

Hochstadt and Southwell also network with veterinarians at veterinary conferences and speak with policymakers at meetings such as the National Conference of State Legislators and the annual meeting of State Agricultural and Rural Leaders.

The department offers its Legal Outreach Program to bring veterinary perspectives on legal issues to law schools and bar associations. Most presentations focus on noneconomic damages and pet guardianship.

Everywhere they go, Hochstadt and Southwell encourage veterinarians not only to become members of state VMAs but also to become directly involved in state governmental relations. Hochstadt said veterinarians have to be involved because the consequences of not being involved are too great.

Southwell agreed, “All of these state laws impact veterinarians in their practice and sometimes the veterinary profession as a whole.”

Resources on state governmental issues are available here.