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Veterinarians, animal rescue/shelter groups fighting over regulations…


"Veterinarians and animal shelter/rescue organizations, two groups with similar goals, are fighting like cats and dogs over a proposed bill that would change requirements for shelters.

Veterinarians, who helped compose the bill (H.3492), claim shelters are practicing veterinary medicine without proper regulation and that the nonprofit groups are using public funds to provide services that compete with private businesses. Animal rescue leaders say the provisions in the bill would shut some of them down, leading to the unnecessary euthanization of thousands of dogs and cats.

Advocates on both sides packed a House subcommittee hearing room Wednesday.

Dr. Pat Hill, president of the S.C. Association of Veterinarians, characterized the bill as a fight by the more than 1,100 veterinarians in the state to protect the nearly 7,000 jobs in their practices. While veterinarians and rescue groups have worked together well in the past, and still do in some areas, Hill said many rescue groups and shelter managers are “no longer adhering to their intended purpose. They are money-generating businesses.”

Ron Roe, a member of the board of Midlands-based Pawmetto Lifeline, countered with the rescue group contention that the bill is about money not animal safety. “This is not about protecting animals,” Roe said. “This is about protecting for-profit businesses.”

Jennifer Hoffman, hospital manager at Murrells Inlet Veterinary Hospital, said the Grand Strand hasn’t seen the issues with mobile clinics other cities across the state have experienced.

But she could see the frustration such clinics may cause, because a mobile clinic if set up nearby an existing office could undercut the business by offering similar services at fractions of the cost.

“They don’t have as much overhead in a mobile unit and they don’t have as much staff,” said Hoffman, when contacted on Thursday.

Hoffman said she doesn’t consider shelters on the Grand Strand to be in competition with veterinarians and portions of the bill are needed, specifically about putting shelters with veterinary services under the same regulations.

“Veterinarians at shelters and non-profits don’t have to follow the same rules in terms of record keeping and different issues about practicing medicine,” she said. “Why would any doctor not be regulated the same as another?”

Joe Elmore, CEO of the Charleston Animal Society, said he was disappointed in the tactics used by private veterinarians to produce the legislation. The process was “one-sided and excluded the industry that it hopes to control.”

Dr. Brett Feder, with S.C. Veterinary Specialists in Columbia, offered as an example of unfair competition an unnamed $4 million facility built with $3 million in local government funding that provides not just spay and neutering for pets it adopts out but also heartworm tests, fecal tests and dental care at its main facility and in a mobile clinic van. That description fits Pawmetto Lifeline, which was built with financial support from Richland and Lexington county governments.

Feder compared the situation to a government-backed food truck pulling up outside one of Rep. Kirkman Finlay’s Columbia restaurants. Finlay, R-Richland, said he has friends on both sides of the issue, and he offered to bring them together for a meeting to try to hash out their differences. The subcommittee adjourned debate on the bill until the two groups have a chance to work out some compromises.

“There are a lot of people who care intensely on each side,” Finlay said. “Let’s channel this energy to make this (bill) less about regulating vets and more about helping animals.”

Hoffman said shelters have an important role in animal care.

“Often times the community may expect too much of them,” she said. “They’re not able to do the same things that a regular veterinary hospital can do.”

Highlighting those differences is important.

“When selling their product or service to a client, the client somehow needs to be informed of the choices and what they may not be able to get at the shelter,” Hoffman said. “There are differences. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not the standards that are accepted at private practices. It’s what [shelters] are able to do at low cost.”

Shelter managers and animal rescue groups have vowed to kill the bill, or at least fight for changes to it.

If passed, the current bill would:

•  Require that animal shelters receiving public grant funds use those public funds only for sterilization procedures for animals in the shelter, not for spay/neuter clinics for non-shelter animals.

•  Require that shelters fall under the regulation of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. The bill’s backers claim some shelter employees without veterinary credentials provide veterinary care and that some shelters either don’t keep patient records or don’t share them with other vets.

•  Require that some veterinary services be available at shelters only for prospective pet owners who are considered low-income. The presumption is people with sufficient income could pay for the services at a private veterinarian’s office. This would add another layer of paperwork for shelters proving low-income status and a hurdle for prospective pet owners, shelters said.

•  Require that any mobile veterinary practice have an affiliation agreement with a local veterinarian within 20 miles of where the mobile operation sets up.

The mobile clinic rule especially irked Roe, whose group offers that service.

“Mobile clinics serve an important role,” Roe said. “In some areas, if they don’t have free or reduced care for their pets, (the pets) go untreated.”

He compared the notion to requiring the Salvation Army to have an agreement with a restaurant within 20 miles of any place it provides food for people in need.

Joe Elmore, CEO of the Charleston Animal Society, said he was disappointed in the tactics used by private veterinarians to produce the legislation. The process was “one-sided and excluded the industry that it hopes to control.”

Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, acknowledged he put the bill together at the urging of veterinarians. He also said amendments will be made based on the concerns of shelter groups. The veterinarians group already agreed to remove requirements that all animals must be examined by a veterinarian within 72 hours of adoption and that shelters couldn’t require certain services be performed before adoption.

Dr. Sarah Boyd has worked on both sides — as a private vet and now as director of shelter health and wellness for the Charleston Animal Society.

“I’ve seen the problems that veterinarians have run up against,” Boyd said. “There are other ways to solve the problems that veterinarians may face without harming the organizations saving animals’ lives…"

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