Dissecting the "Fairness To Pet Owners Act" (A Pet Owner's Primer)

It's baaaak! No, it's not the newest Poltergeist iteration (thank God). This time it's the Fairness to Pet Owners Act.

Proposed back in 2011 and ultimately tabled, this federal law would've required that all veterinarians offer their clients written prescriptions for any and all drugs they might choose to dispense to your pet -- regardless of whether you, their owner, asked for one or not.

 Lola in her surgical cap

Lola in her surgical cap

According to DVM360.com, the...

"Bill says mandatory veterinary prescription writing will lower cost of pet ownership, encourage competition." It also explains that, "The bipartisan bill—HR 4023—takes the position that the veterinary clinic is not the best place to buy pet medication."

Bak in 2011, it was a contentious bit of legislation for veterinarians (most of whom vociferously opposed it). And now, as if to prove that nothing is ever truly over as long as our legislators still choose to haggle over all things trivial (when far more pressing legislative work looms ominously), this annoying bit of unnecessary legislation is back on the docket again.

Still not quite sure why you should care or why veterinarians might dislike such a law? Here’s some background:

Historically, pet owners have purchased animal drugs and products at their veterinary hospitals. Got an itch, an infection or a parasite to prevent? No need to waste your time running off to a pharmacy — we’ve got just the drug for you conveniently accessible via our in-house pharmacies.

That's because, in the past, human pharmacies never bothered to stock veterinary products. Why would they? Not only were they not big money-makers worthy of a pharmacy's time and effort required to stock and dispense them, human pharmacists have never been trained in the science of animal drugs and their effects on our patients.

But fast-forward to the twenty-first century and every human pharmacy and big-box pet retailer wants in on the action. Pet drugs and products translate into big bucks these days. And even behemoth human drug retailers like Walmart, Costco, Walgreens, and CVS (among others), want their slice of that juicy pie.

And the truth is, competition is always good thing for YOU, the pet-owning consumer. But that doesn't mean your veterinarian is happy about that –– or that it's always in your pet's best interest. Because, inevitably, this kind of big muscle competition means that a) your pet's safety may not always be best served by buying your pet's drugs elsewhere and b) your veterinarian is being edged out.

Let's address point a) first:

Again, your average pharmacist is not trained in animal drugs. Managing the possibility of serious drug interactions, being alert to the mislabeling and potential overdosage issues (when interpreting handwriting, for example), and keeping up on which inactive ingredients to steer clear from (xylitol-containing elixirs comes to mind), means that your veterinarian is still probably your safest bet –– especially when your pets are on a round-robin of medications.

But for most pet meds, let's be honest, buying your drugs from human pharmacies issn't usually a serious safety concern. Moreover, plenty of pet-only Internet pharmacies are ready and willing to sell you drugs cheaper than most veterinary hospitals –– with fewer safety-based problems the human pharmacies might offer.

But let's move on to b), the most contentious of the two:

Sure, buying big-box or from an Internet parmacy means you can pay less for your pet's drugs. Nonetheless, there is some bad news:

When you buy drugs elsewhere it impacts how we veterinarians pay for our lights, our phones, our staffs and our workers comp insurance (among other niceties you may never pause to consider). And since we compete with other veterinary hospitals on surgery, exam fees and X-rays (for example), we struggle to keep these service-based prices low. In fact, the mark-up on all that other stuff (drugs and products) is what has historically kept our practices in the black.

All of which explains why the lion's share of the pet-based veterinary community now finds itself in turmoil. How do we suddenly tell our clients that a sterilization procedure is no longer $150, but $450? And that exam fee? It's now $60, instead of $30.

So will this change save you money in the long run? Given the concurrent (and inevitable) rise in our prices on services. I'm pretty sure they're wrong about that.

In any case, some veterinarians have decided they’ll resist this change and any other that allows you, the consumer, a wider range of drug and product choices outside of their own facilities. In fact, a small (but dwindling) group has taken this attitude even further: They’ll outright refuse to write you a prescription.

For the record, this is a practice that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has deemed unethical and one that I personally abhor. And this is where the Fairness to Pet Owners Act comes in. Unfair, they say. Competition-stifling, they say. And, of course, they're not completely wrong.

But it's not just about a) and b), above. If it passes this time around, the law would alter our business as usual in a few key ways:

According to the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association),

“[This law] would impose new stipulations on veterinary prescriptions. The bill requires a veterinarian to 1) write a prescription (whether or not they'll dispense the product); 2) provide a written disclosure notifying clients that they may fill prescriptions at the veterinary clinic or at an off-site pharmacy; and 3) verify a prescription electronically or by other means consistent with applicable State law."

Additionally, a veterinarian may not ...

"Require the purchase of an animal drug for which the veterinarian has written a prescription; charge a client a fee for writing a prescription as part of (or in addition to) the fee for examination and evaluation of a pet; or require a client to sign, or supply a client with, a waiver or liability disclaimer should the prescription be inaccurately filled by an off-site pharmacy."

That's lots of stipulations, right? Here’s what I have to say:

Although I absolutely agree with the intent of the legislation, I have a lot of problems with this proposed law.

#1 The bill doesn’t merely call on vets to offer a choice, it requires us to provide a paper trail for our recommendation. So what am I supposed to do? Write a physical script and then write “void” on it when my client chooses to get it filled with me? And when/where do I offer said “written disclosure”? On the invoice? After they've paid? Before?

I mean, seriously, what a pain!

Plus, when you factor in that veterinarians like me who already take steps to make drugs as cheap as Internet pharmacies (when feasible) and always offer our clients written prescriptions as part of our policy, it doesn't seem fair. I mean, some of us currently lose income on our in-house pharmacy by way of making things convenient for you, our clients.

After all, I have to pay to keep meds stocked at all times for insta-availability in the event of acute illnesses. Which makes the whole issue wholly unpalatable even for those of us who’d like to rid ourselves of the "stuff" sales altogether.

Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a veterinarian more receptive than I am to this kind of pro-consumer  change, but I still find myself marveling at the issues our lawmakers are willing to spend their time on. But then, a proposed law like this one would've never been necessary if a small subset of veterinarians hadn't been so unwilling to do the right thing in the first place.

So what do you think? Is this legislation is unfair to veterinarians? Is it necessary for YOU, the pet owner? Gimme your opinion in the comment section below.

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Dr. Patty Khuly