Advocacy program brings lawmakers, veterinarians together

AVMA Ambassador Program puts members on the front line
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Three citizens in front of U.S. Capitol buildingDr. Garry Cowan does not shy away from politics—or politicians, for that matter. A few years ago, when Mike Pompeo, a Republican, represented the 4th District of Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives, he also happened to be a client of Dr. Cowan's. Dr. Cowan developed a rapport with Pompeo and kept in touch even after Pompeo moved away when he became director of the CIA and later secretary of state.

Rep. Ron Estes, a Republican, won Pompeo's seat in 2017, and later the AVMA invited Estes to meet with veterinarians in his district. It was a no-brainer for Dr. Cowan to meet with Estes. The two spoke for an hour and a half and have visited a few times since then.

"I know many colleagues, they don't like to have to deal with politics; they see it as dirty business," Dr. Cowan said. "These people represent us. They are a part of the system of democracy. Unless they get information from reputable sources, they will make decisions off of information they get from someone else's agenda."

Making their voices heard

Dr. Cowan is part of the newly created AVMA Ambassador Program.

The ambassador program expands on the AVMA's advocacy efforts, such as the fly-in for AVMA members to visit Capitol Hill, in a way that makes it easier for members to get involved beyond Washington, D.C.

Gina Luke, assistant director in the AVMA State Advocacy Division, said the thought was, "Not everyone can jump on a plane and leave their practice for a few days to go to D.C." So how could the AVMA be more effective?

Dr. Nord and Mr. McClure with Rep. Davis
Dr. Ron Nord (left) and his grandson, Chet McClure (right), a fourth-year veterinary student at the University of Illinois, meet with Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican who represents Illinois' 13th Congressional District, which includes U of I's veterinary college. McClure is the first student to participate in the AVMA Ambassador Program.

The intent is to have veterinarians visit with their lawmakers in their state or congressional district to build relationships and ensure lawmakers hear directly from constituent veterinarians about the issues of importance to the profession.

Dr. Bishop with Rep. Panetta
Dr. George Bishop (right), District X representative on the AVMA Board of Directors, meets with Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat who represents California's 20th Congressional District, at Dr. Bishop's practice, The Animal Hospital at the Crossroads in Carmel, California.

Launched at the beginning of 2018, the program had 77 ambassadors attend 46 district- or state-based events that year. They met with 26 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and two candidates who ran for office in the House—one successful and the other not—and 14 members of the U.S. Senate spread across 22 states. This year as of the end of June, the program has had 36 ambassadors attend 24 events in 14 states with 16 representatives and three senators. This represents over one ambassador meeting per week during the times members of Congress were in their districts.

Through June 2019, nine members of Congress have toured veterinary clinics, including Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a Democrat who represents California's 20th Congressional District, and Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican who represents Idaho's 2nd Congressional District.

The AVMA hopes to continue to expand the program, Luke said, targeting legislators assigned to committees with jurisdiction over issues central to the veterinary profession.

Can we have a chat?

Ambassadors are invited to participate in the program on the basis of a number of criteria, including that they must be AVMA members, and priority is given for those involved with their state VMA or another veterinary organization represented in the AVMA House of Delegates. They also may be involved with an AVMA council or committee, which demonstrates they are interested in policy, Luke said.

Drs. McCutchan, DeMaris, Norling, and Bellinghausen with Rep. DelBene
Drs. Jim McCutchan (far left), Paul DeMaris (second from left), Anna Norling (second from right), and Mike Bellinghausen (far right) visit with Rep. Suzan DelBene (center), a Democrat who represents Washington state's 1st Congressional District.

The AVMA secures the meeting with the lawmaker, arguably the most difficult part, Luke said. Those meetings can take many forms, ranging from receptions to simply going out for coffee, but increasingly, the AVMA has focused on getting lawmakers to tour veterinary hospitals.

"I think this really elevates what veterinarians are doing in the mind of the lawmaker," Luke said. She said lawmakers see the role veterinarians play as employers and health care providers and get a chance to appreciate the complexity of what veterinarians do.

Drs. Klingborg and Lairmore with Rep. Garamendi
Drs. Don Klingborg (left) and Michael Lairmore (right) visit with Rep. John Garamendi (center), a Democrat who represents California's 3rd Congressional District.

Ambassadors get briefed on the lawmaker's background, the population of veterinarians in the state or congressional district, their responsibilities as ambassadors, and what messages the AVMA would like them to deliver. Afterward, ambassadors report back to the AVMA about what they discussed, such as any information they received relevant to those messages. Ambassadors also are encouraged to develop relationships with the lawmaker and with the lawmaker's legislative staff if such relationships don't already exist.

"The key is to get that personal connection between the veterinarian and the elected official. They are the best ones to deliver the message. They live and work in those states (and districts), and they (as voters) have the ability to pull the lever for their member," Luke said.

Ambassadors and federal lawmakers discuss topics that impact veterinary practices in several ways. Issues discussed during these meetings have included association health plans, antimicrobials and opioids, mandatory prescription writing, appropriations, priorities in the farm bill, educational debt, legislation on animal welfare, and taxes, as well as commercial hauling of live animals and air transportation of research animals.

Drs. Skaer, Cowan, and Hesse with Rep. Estes
Drs. Christen Skaer (far left), Garry Cowan (second from left), and Chris Hesse (far right) speak with Rep. Ron Estes (second from right), a Republican who represents the 4th Congressional District of Kansas, during an ambassador event at Dr. Cowan's clinic this spring.

"Veterinarians are the experts on animal health and welfare," Luke said. "They should be consulted and conferred with."

Making an impression

Dr. Wall's clinic tour with Rep. Brady
Dr. Rick Wall (right) gives a clinic tour to Rep. Kevin Brady (second from left), a Republican who represents the 8th Congressional District in Texas. This year as of the end of June, the AVMA's ambassador program has had 36 ambassadors attend 24 events in 14 states.

The AVMA's current top federal legislative priority is the Fairness to Pet Owners Act (HR 1607), which has been reintroduced in the current Congress. This legislation would require a veterinarian to provide a client with a written prescription for a companion animal's medication, whether the client requests it or not.

Dr. Cowan, who is the delegate for Kansas in the AVMA House of Delegates and a member of the AVMA Legislative Advisory Committee, discussed the Fairness to Pet Owners Act with Rep. Estes when the lawmaker took a tour of Dr. Cowan's clinic this past April. The practitioner pointed out that the success of online pharmacies makes it clear that clients can already easily get prescriptions from their veterinarians.

Dr. Cowan and two other veterinarians spent an hour showing Estes around the clinic, answering questions, and talking about other issues impacting the profession, clients, and the delivery of veterinary care such as the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act and the availability and expansion of group health insurance programs. Speaking of the impact of the meeting, Cowan remarked that establishing these types of relationships makes it easier for legislators to receive information from the veterinary profession that they can weigh when deciding what their position should be.

"That's the intent of the ambassador program," Dr. Cowan said. "People willing to get involved—make those kind of connections—so later on down the road they think of us when they need input on issues and pick up the phone."

How to get involved

Gina Luke, an assistant director in the AVMA Division of State Advocacy, encourages all AVMA members to join the Congressional Advocacy Network, which keeps members informed of issues that are before Congress and calls them to contact their lawmaker when needed.

She also suggests members fill out an advocacy survey so the AVMA can better understand members' network of relationships with elected officials, how interested they are in certain public policy issues, and whether they want to take a more active role in advocating for veterinary medicine in the public policy arena. Take the survey.

Related JAVMA content:

Federal veterinarians reflect on career choice following government shutdown (March 15, 2019)

Gains for animal health in farm bill (Feb. 15, 2019)