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The Impact of Subsidized Veterinary Care

Ever since humane societies set out to provide affordable animal care to pet owners in need, they've helped animals in hundreds of communities. But they've upset veterinarians in many of those communities as well.

Soon after the Virginia Beach SPCA founded its subsidized spay/neuter and vaccination clinic for the public in 1982, area veterinarians took the SPCA to court, claiming "unfair competition." Veterinarians lost that battle, and courts continue to allow hospitals and other nonprofit organizations to pursue such programs as long as they are consistent with their mission.

But Virginia's veterinary medical association continued to fight, revising its practice act and requiring that veterinarians be employed by fellow veterinarians, thus excluding humane societies and SPCAs. Based on that revision, Virginia's Supreme Court had no choice but to order the Virginia Beach SPCA to discontinue its clinic practice. Years later, such employment restrictions were ruled unfair and removed, but the damage had been done. Many humane societies in Virginia and other states still hesitate to build their own clinics out of fear that the veterinary community might have some legal authority to stop them.

Similar situations in Michigan have muddied the waters even more. When a shelter in Macomb County increased its clinic's operations, veterinarians filed suit to remove its nonprofit standing. The shelter won the case, then put an end to the controversy by simply establishing a separate "for-profit" entity. Despite this "for-profit" designation, the clinic earns no profit and therefore pays no income taxes.

A short time later, the Michigan Humane Society (MHS) was put to the same test after its full-service subsidized veterinary clinics attained a higher profile in the community. But the Internal Revenue Service ruled that the clinic's activities were only one of many vital services that MHS provides, and that the work was within the scope of the organization's mission. MHS retained its tax-exempt status.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Much of the fear and animosity that comes between shelters and veterinarians has its beginnings in these hard-fought battles. But now that humane organizations have succeeded in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion, the veterinary community is increasingly looking for the opportunity to forge positive relationships. Only a decade ago, articles in Veterinary Economics warned veterinarians of the dangers of subsidized care. But in recent years, articles in the same publication have implored veterinarians to collaborate with area shelters for the interests of both groups and, of course, for animals.

Already, more and more shelters have hired full-time veterinarians, which is increasing each group's exposure to the issues faced by the other. And future work between shelters and veterinarians might become even more commonplace as private practitioners brace themselves for changes in their field. In recent years veterinarians have become more concerned about the growth of larger corporate practices such as Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) and VETsMART, which have the marketing power and resources to undercut the fees charged by local practitioners. And that's forcing veterinarians to adjust their approach to business.

"Because of the way that veterinary medicine is changing, the veterinary field is going to have to move away from relying on vaccines and spaying and neutering to make their profit," says Andrea Guazzo, a veterinarian at the Mid Hudson Animal Hospital in Hyde Park, New York. As pediatric spay/neuter gains popularity, as vaccinations no longer require annual boosters, and as corporate giants like VETsMART take a piece of the pie, veterinary medicine is evolving.

"Already, there's more emphasis on actual wellness care—not just focusing on the vaccine itself but focusing on the time you spend with the people, the examination, defining problems before they become big, and even geriatric preventive care for healthy animals," says Guazzo. Guazzo and others note that, as in most industries, professionals who want to thrive in veterinary medicine will focus more on delivering a complete service to their customers.

"It's like the difference between going to a restaurant where you pay fifty dollars for a meal and get personal attention from the waiter, and going through the drive-thru at McDonald's," says Daniel Simpson, DVM, a practicing veterinarian affiliated with the Providence Animal Rescue League in Rhode Island. "That's not to disparage the corporate practices—it's just that different segments of the population are looking for different things."

Is there room for cooperation between shelters and veterinarians given all of this competition? "Absolutely," says Simpson. "There's room for everybody—there's room for shelters, there's room for corporate practices, there's even room for the little guy like me. In fact the biggest way to grow your practice is to have an association with [a shelter], offer that first exam at no charge while providing services for a charge, and get that patient into your practice for ten or twelve years."

As veterinarians adopt a broader view of their role in the community, many are becoming more willing to knock on the doors of the local spay/neuter clinic—and less likely to try to close those doors for good.


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