From Congress to the courtroom, AVMA advocates for veterinarians
Earlier this year, the AVMA filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit against the Bronx Zoo that was brought by an animal rights organization attempting to convince New York state’s highest court to grant legal personhood to Happy, an elephant kept at the zoo, and declare that Happy was being unlawfully imprisoned. Ultimately, the court sided with the AVMA’s position, reasoning that granting legal personhood to a nonhuman animal would have significant implications for the relationship between humans and animals in all aspects of life—including potential disruption of property rights, the agricultural industry, and medical research efforts—and would even undermine pet ownership.
This case is among the many instances of the Association’s advocacy on behalf of its more than 100,000 members. The scope of that work covers practically every aspect of veterinary medicine and occurs in such venues as Congress, state legislatures alongside state veterinary associations, courtrooms, and departments and agencies in the executive branch such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security, and others.
Dr. Kent McClure, AVMA chief advocacy officer and associate executive vice president, attributed the AVMA’s advocacy successes to the Association’s established reputation as a nonpartisan organization that stakes out well-reasoned positions. This core strength allows the AVMA to advocate on behalf of the profession on a staggering breadth of issues that includes animal health and welfare, antimicrobials, compounding, student loan debt, telemedicine, noneconomic damages, scope of practice, small business, public health, and food safety.
“The AVMA’s strict nonpartisan nature allows the AVMA to work with lawmakers and congressional offices across the political spectrum,” Dr. McClure said. “Having earned this reputation, we are known as an organization that takes a thoughtful approach to advocacy that involves itself when legislation or regulation directly impacts the profession.”
As AVMA President Lori Teller explained, the Association’s advocacy efforts are powered by a diverse membership and guided by members and volunteer leadership.
The AVMA Board of Directors sets the course for the Association’s government relations policy. Priorities and decisions to support or oppose legislation are based on the recommendations of the AVMA Legislative Advisory Committee as well as the Association’s House of Delegates and councils and committees whose members are well acquainted with the subject matter.
The AVMA’s state and federal government relations team comprises a staff of nearly a dozen people. They are a mix of veterinarians, lawyers, and registered lobbyists.
The team tracks federal and state legislation, along with legal cases that could impact the profession. The team assists state VMAs and constituent allied organizations with their government relations issues and produces a newsletter for AVMA members, the AVMA Advocate. The team also works directly with legislative offices, manages the Association’s political action committee, and oversees the AVMA Congressional Advocacy Network—a grassroots operation that assists AVMA members in contacting their elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate as part of outreach efforts on specific pieces of legislation that impact the veterinary profession.
Throughout the year, the AVMA hosts events designed to build and strengthen relationships between elected officials and their constituent veterinarians. These events, such as the AVMA Ambassadors Program and the annual legislative fly-in in Washington, D.C., are opportunities for lawmakers to hear directly from veterinarian constituents about public policies and programs impacting the profession, as well as animal and public health.
Advocacy in action
Recent examples of AVMA advocacy in action include stopping legislation that would create a federal mandate for veterinarians to provide written prescriptions regardless of whether the client wants one, ensuring proper levels of funding for key federal veterinary programs and research, and working with state veterinary associations to facilitate the use of telemedicine after a veterinarian-client-patient relationship has been established in person.
The AVMA was instrumental in passing legislation establishing the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. Run by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the program increases access to veterinary services in rural areas by assisting veterinarians with educational debt who serve in USDA-designated veterinarian shortage situations. This past April, more than 200 veterinarians and veterinary students participating in the AVMA virtual fly-in encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would extend the reach of the program even further.
Fly-in participants also encouraged federal lawmakers to help ensure the health of over a million dogs imported into the United States every year by passing the Healthy Dog Importation Act. The bill would strengthen the import requirements for live dogs brought into the country with the intent to lessen the introduction of zoonotic disease and help prevent outbreaks of foreign animal diseases.
More recently, strong opposition from the AVMA helped power a legislative win to protect wildlife and exotic animals. A few provisions that would limit the importation of many nonnative species and ban interstate transportation of species listed as injurious under the Lacey Act were quietly included in a bigger piece of legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The AVMA voiced strong opposition while House and Senate members were working to reconcile different versions of the bill. Thanks to advocacy by the AVMA and other stakeholders, lawmakers dropped measures that would have impacted access to care for these animals and created regulatory barriers to care through additional permitting needs for research institutions.
The AVMA continues to lead the discussion in Congress concerning the need to pass one-health legislation. As a result, multiple bills containing one-health language have advanced in Congress. Most recently, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions passed the Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats, and Pandemics Act, which incorporated a provision that would help implement a one-health framework. Additionally, the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes one-health language that would require the improvement of coordination among federal departments and agencies.
“These recent developments are a strong indicator that there is broad, bipartisan support from both the House and Senate chambers,” Dr. McClure said. “Going forward, the AVMA will continue to work with congressional offices to get a one-health framework passed into law.”
The AVMA is preparing for the 2023 reauthorization of the federal farm bill, which funds animal health programs; the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank; and many other veterinary priorities. Currently, the AVMA is engaged with members, state VMAs and allied organizations, and other stakeholders to establish its priorities for its advocacy efforts next year.
At the state level, another example of AVMA advocacy is the Association filing a legal brief opposing noneconomic damages in a case before Maryland’s highest court. The court agreed that the awarding of noneconomic damages should not be allowed. Subsequently, in an effort to negate the court’s decision, legislation was introduced in the Maryland legislature that would have allowed noneconomic-based damages in negligence cases involving pets. Sustained advocacy from the AVMA and MDVMA stopped the legislation, however.
In addition to this case, the AVMA has presented written legal arguments in some 15 appellate cases addressing why allowing noneconomic damages in negligence litigation involving harm to pets is bad public policy. The AVMA opposes such awards because of the negative impact they would have on pet care. The cost of veterinary services and products would necessarily rise to cover the related expense of such litigation and potential awards, resulting in many owners being unable to provide veterinary care for their pets.
The importance of advocacy
Dr. Teller emphasized how important it is to be active in the veterinary profession’s advocacy efforts.
“Legislation and rulings issued in the courtroom can dramatically impact the future of veterinary medicine,” Dr. Teller said. “Advocacy to shape and influence these outcomes ensures lawmakers are educated before important public policy decisions affecting the profession are made.”
You can contribute to the veterinary profession’s advocacy work in a variety of ways, tailored to your specific interests and availability:
Join the AVMA Congressional Advocacy Network, and act when you receive legislative alerts.
Subscribe to the AVMA Advocate newsletter to stay informed about how the latest public policy moves impact you.
Volunteer with your veterinary associations to join a committee that advises on legislative matters.
For hands-on advocacy experience in Washington, D.C., students should consider applying for an externship with the AVMA Government Relations Division.
As a veterinary graduate, apply for an unparalleled opportunity to shape public policy and gain knowledge about the political process through the AVMA Congressional Fellowship Program.
A version of this article appears in the November 2022 print issue of JAVMA.