North Alabama residents who rely on the low-cost spay and neuter clinic in Huntsville to “fix” their pets may soon have to do without it.
The Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners is proposing new rules that could shut down four such clinics located in Huntsville, Irondale, Dothan and Montgomery. Here is the board’s proposal:
• To prevent non-veterinarians from hiring or supervising veterinarians;
• To prevent non-vets — including nonprofit groups — from owning veterinary equipment.
Without the rule changes, the state board believes the public’s health, safety or welfare could be harmed or endangered. It claims the clinics are offering low-quality spaying and neutering at a low cost.
Meanwhile, the clinics say they are offering low-cost procedures and high-quality care. Clinic supporters say the ASBVME’s proposed rule change is about money, nothing more. They say the board is responding to private-practice vets who believe the low-cost clinics are cutting into the livelihoods.
Board President Dr. Robert Pitman — who also contracts with the city and county to provide veterinary services for animals at the city/county animal shelter called The Dog Pound — says the nonprofit spay and neuter clinics are really full-service veterinary clinics that, unlike private-practice veterinarians, don’t pay taxes that support infrastructure like roads and community needs like schools.
“These clinics are not offering services that are not already being offered and they are not supporting communities the way other veterinarians are supporting the community — through tax dollars, “ Pitman said.
For example, Pitman said the clinics sell flea medicines like other vets but they can do so at a cheaper rate because they don’t have to remit the sales tax, Pitman said.
In a letter to state veterinarians asking them to oppose proposed legislation that would have ensured that the clinics remain open, Pitman said that the ASBVME “adamantly opposes legislation that would allow every non-profit organization to own a clinic, such as humane societies, rescue groups, volunteer fire department, wild turkey federation, bingo club, etc. This is certainly not in the best interest of the pet owning public.”
He also told The News Courier Friday that of the 30 veterinary clinics in the area, probably 28 offer low-cost spay and neuter options for low-income residents just like the North Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic. He said the city and county also fund the SNIP program, which provides spay and neuter services to low-income pet owners for only $10.
What sets the North Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic apart is that it offers low-cost spaying and neutering services to anyone who walks through its doors, not just to those who have low incomes. Veterinarians are losing to these low-cost clinics people who might otherwise pay them for spaying and neutering services.
The ASBVME will hold a p u blic h earing o n t h e proposed rule change at 9 a.m. O c t . 1 0 at 8 Commerce St., Suite 910, in Montgomery. In a press release issued Friday, the board assured its members and the media the hearing was not called to conduct disciplinary action. However, the board also stated that it is mandated by the Legislature to discipline any facility or licensee not in compliance with state law.
North Alabama Spay Neuter Clinic has started a petition against the proposed rule change at 3303 N. Memorial Parkway. The petition is also available online at www.nalspayneuter.org or on Facebook.
Clinic supporters worry that the loss of the low-cost clinics would increase the state’s already burgeoning pet overpopulation.
According to the Humane Society, 3 to 4 million cats and dogs are humanely killed at shelters across the nation each year. In 2011, roughly 700 city cats and dogs were killed and approximately 1,928 county cats and dogs were killed — a total of about 2,628 last year, according to figures from the city and county. This tax-funded killing costs about $200 per pet (including boarding and other costs) compared to the lower cost of spaying and neutering, according to Dr. Joy Baird, veterinary at the North Alabama Spay/Neuter Clinic in Huntsville.
Alabama and Mississippi have the highest kill rates in the nation, Baird has said.
When asked by The News Courier if the proposed rule change would shut down the low-cost clinics, Pitman said he did not know.
“The problem,” he said, “is that the board has requested information from the clinics and they have not complied.”
When told that many people rely on the clinic simply to have stray cats fixed, Pitman pointed out that the population of cats poses a threat to the small animal population, particularly birds, which can be wiped out in a neighborhood with too many cats.
Current state law already bans veterinarians from being employed by non-veterinarians unless covered by an exemption. This provision made it difficult for Baird when she wanted to take over as veterinary at the North Alabama clinic because she owned the practice but not the building. However, the problem was worked out and a permit was issued.
Clinic supporters have had some lawmakers on their side. House Bill 156 — proposed earlier this year — would have done the following:
• Added an exemption to exiting law allowing non-vets to employ vets;
• Allowed vets to be employed by limited-service, nonprofit facilities that perform only spay and neuter surgeries and only administer vaccinations at the time of surgery;
• Required a licensed vet to supervise medical practices at such facilities and obtain a premises permit from the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.
Although the bill had support, the legislative session ended before it could be passed. It is expected to be reintroduced when the Legislature resumes.
Supporters of the low-cost clinics say members of the state veterinary medical board drafted its proposed rule change in order to preclude HB 156.
FTC weighs in
The Federal Trade Commission — the federal agency charged with preventing unfair methods of competition and unfair acts affecting commerce — reviewed the proposed bill and issued an assessment in April. The agency wrote, in part, in a letter to Rep. Patricia Todd of Birmingham, “FTC staff believe the bill is likely to benefit consumers by increasing consumer access to, and choices among, spay and neuter services for their pets.”
Efforts to regulate different types of commercial practice, the FTC wrote, “commonly prevent licensed professionals from entering into commercial relationships” and that the effect of such restrictions “is often to reduce competition and increase prices.”