The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 10, 2012

Lawmakers intercede in spay-neuter clinics fight

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— A request from five Alabama senators could keep the state’s four low-cost spay and neuter clinics in business.

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, made public Tuesday a letter dated Oct. 4 in which he and four other senators asked the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners to refrain from voting on a rule change that would all but close the state’s four low-cost, nonprofit spay and neuter clinics.

The letter is signed by Holtzclaw, Sen. Del Marsh, Sen. Cam Ward, Sen. Slade Blackwell and Sen. Jerry Fielding.

Meanwhile the state Veterinary Medical Association, which represents 750 members or about 75 percent of the state’s veterinarians, has also written a letter to the ASBVME asking board members to delay action until the legislative session.

The letters follow mounting pressure from opponents of the ASBVME’s proposed rule changes, which would:

• Prevent nonveterinarians from hiring or supervising veterinarians;

• Prevent nonvets — including nonprofit groups — from owning veterinary equipment.

Clinic owners say the board is simply trying to eliminate the clinics because they compete with private veterinarians. The four low-cost clinics, which are owned independently by separate nonprofit groups, have performed about 100,000 spay and neuter surgeries.

The letters

The letter sent by the five senators to the ASBVME states that a proposed bill that would have allowed the clinics garnered support last session but “died in the basket” as lawmakers ran out of time in the session. The letter reads:

“It is our understanding that as a rule making body, working within the legislative authority granted by statute, that you are considering imposing a new rule that will limit or restrict low-cost spay/neuter clinics from operating in Alabama. (The title of the rule is ‘Exercise of Independent Professional Judgement by Veterinarians; Prohibited Business Arrangements or Relationships.’)

“As we are all aware, House Bill 156, introduced by Rep. Patricia Todd, was heavily debated during the 2012 regular legislative session. Legislators received numerous emails and phone calls from both sides of the issue throughout the legislative session, and the bill was tirelessly worked by both parties. Through the spirit of cooperation, the bill received no less than six amendments and a version of HB 156 passed the House with 73 ‘yes’ votes and 26 ‘no’ votes. A further amended version passed the Senate with 27 ‘yes’ votes. In the end, due to time constraints within the 2012 session, no final action was taken and the bill ‘died in the basket.’

“It is apparent that both sides are passionate about this matter and work remains to be done. Therefore, we respectfully request that no rule changes be implemented that would affect the current status of low-cost spay and neuter clinics from operating in Alabama. This matter should be taken up again in the 2013 Legislative Session (convening in February) and through continued collaborative efforts, we are confident that a solution can be crafted which both sides are able to support.”

Veterinary Association letter

Although the Veterinary Association initially supported the board, it is seeking clarification and a delay in voting on the rules change. In a letter dated Oct. 4, Association President William Allen wrote:

“The Executive Committee of the Alabama Veterinary Medical Association met and discussed the proposed rules of ASBVME and, while we have usually supported the efforts of the Board, we must disagree with the current proposals and respectfully submit these comments for your consideration. 

“The veterinary profession in this state has been damaged by the preponderance of negative publicity related to the veterinary ownership issue.  While we had hoped the proposed rules would help to clarify the position of the ASBVME, it is apparent from the calls we have received that more confusion exists now than at any time previously.  This confusion exists within the veterinary community, large animal producers, the media and the entire public.

“We ask you to consider postponing the rule making hearing until the wording of the rules can be clarified and corrected to reflect the proper meaning and intent. This rules document, as written and published, contains incomplete sentences, ambiguity and undefined words and clauses.  Many of the comments we have received suggest that veterinarians and laypersons alike have no idea of the intent behind these rule proposals.

“To give just one brief example: in 930-X-1-.39, (1) (c), the rule states that no person other than a licensed veterinarian may retain the ownership or control of veterinary equipment or material.  This is being interpreted by those in the food animal producer groups to mean that they can no longer own a dehorner or castration knife.  Additionally, we wonder what the definition of “material” might include. 

“While the intent may be clear to those within your board who have worked diligently to develop this, please be assured that others do not see this with clarity. In fairness to the veterinarians you regulate and the public you protect, we ask for you to clarify these documents and schedule a new hearing after proper notice is given of the clarified rules. 

“As an additional observation, we noted while reviewing the Practice Act posted on the ASBVME website that changes made in the 2010 Legislative session do not appear to have been incorporated in your document. It would be helpful to have an accurate copy of the Practice Act for use with consideration of the rule proposals. For these reasons, we cannot support the proposed rules changes.”