Coalition wants veterinary access for economically at-risk pets

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An ongoing concern voiced by some in the profession is that nonprofit organizations providing veterinary services are competing with private practitioners and stealing their clients.

Dr. Michael Blackwell, chief veterinary officer for the Humane Society of the United States, has a vested interest in the issue and says hard data are needed rather than anecdotes.

“Everybody has heard the story of veterinarians driving by a low-cost spay-neuter clinic and seeing their client’s car parked outside, the lady with the Mercedes. She’s all over the country. We really want to find out what her name is and why she is doing that,” Dr. Blackwell said.

“It’s fair to say there are people who will go to whatever lengths they can to cut costs in ownership, but to what extent is that going on? Is it at a level where it’s eroding the financial wellbeing of practices? I don’t think so, but we’ll see. I haven’t seen private practices financially hurt because a nonprofit is trying to help those in need. But that’s something that hasn’t been objectively measured.”

He is a member of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition, a group formed by the Humane Society VMA to bring together veterinary, animal welfare, and social services professionals, including representatives of for-profit and nonprofit veterinary service providers. Its goals are as follows:

  • Foster development and promotion of methods for providing access to veterinary care for the millions of pets currently without it.
  • Respond to legislative, regulatory, and other efforts designed to interfere with nonprofit practices’ ability to serve pet owners, and work to pre-empt and avoid such action whenever possible.
  • Improve collaboration among private nonprofit and for-profit veterinary service providers as well as relevant social service providers to promote access to veterinary care for all pet owners.
  • Provide guidance to the veterinary profession regarding ways it can help promote access to veterinary care for all pet owners.

The group’s first task is to study how effective programs operate to ensure sustainable access to veterinary care. The coalition will study target populations and the type of services provided, in addition to exploring how humane care may be provided under economic hardship circumstances. The coalition will report its findings by July 1, 2018, according to an HSVMA press release.

Programs such as the Humane Society VMA’s Rural Area Veterinary Services aim to serve those who would otherwise have no access to veterinary services. RAVS combines high-quality, direct-care veterinary field clinics with clinical training for veterinary students to improve the health and welfare of animals in remote rural communities. RAVS staff and volunteers set up this field clinic Nov. 15-21, 2015, on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, where the team of 30 veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and students provided spay-neuter and wellness care for 300 animals. (Photos by Shea Michelle/Humane Society VMA

“One of the key things we’re trying to address and understand is to what extent or how often is it that people who can pay for private medical care are seeking to go to a low-cost nonprofit to have their pet seen. Anecdotal data suggest that’s not really happening. When people can afford private care, that’s what they will go and acquire. The analogy is most people who have the ability to afford physician care don’t go to their city health department or to ministries to get medical services,” Dr. Blackwell said.

In the spring of 2015, the coalition agreed on the following basic principles: All animals deserve veterinary care, many pets in the United States are not getting the veterinary care they need, and veterinarians should have the freedom to provide a spectrum of care for their patients. Regarding the last point, the group defined that to mean the following:

  • Veterinarians should have the flexibility to offer proven, effective treatments for their patients, with the understanding that those options may not involve the use of the most expensive, technologically advanced, or state-of-the-art equipment or techniques.
  • Veterinarians should be able to consider pets’ individual circumstances and their owners’ living situations when determining proper courses of treatment
  • Veterinarians should have the legal protection and professional approval to provide appropriate care to underserved animals, whether that is in for-profit or nonprofit practice settings.
  • Nonprofit veterinary practices should not be required to limit the scope of services they provide or perform means testing or other income screening of clients simply because of their nonprofit status.

These fundamental principles, known as the Guiding Principles to Ensure Access to Veterinary Care, are posted here.

It takes a diverse group of individuals and diverse approaches to meet the needs of pets in America,” Dr. Blackwell said. “To the extent that we can not only appreciate that but also seek to collaborate with one another, we will do a better job of meeting the needs of pets, especially the unmet needs that are there today.”