Veterinarians vs Walmart, Pet Owners
Are you entitled to your dog's prescription?

color photograph of veterinarian with small shih tzu on examination table.

Potential Legislation

If you hear snarling, snapping and whining at your veterinarian's, it may not be a patient but the vet reacting to the Fairness to Pet Owners Act (HR 4023,) currently stalled in the U. S. Congress.

On one side is the American Veterinary Medication Association (AVMA) which is the vet's version of the American Medical Association. On the other side, are Walmart and similar stores such as Target, chain drug stores, Costco, and Sam's Club as well as a few groups of pet owners.

The Pet Owners Act would require veterinarians to provide owners with a copy
of their pet's prescription and a written disclosure that the owner may fill the prescription through the veterinarian or other pharmacy.

It would prohibit veterinarians from requiring purchase of the medication from themselves or for charging a fee to write a prescription.

Veterinarian Side

The AVMA claims the law is unnecessary because the AVMA encourages veterinarians to offer owners a prescription and because the federal law may conflict with existing state laws that are in effect.

Of course, the bottom line is money. Veterinarians maintain that they would have to raise their fees if they lose the income from prescription medications. One online veterinarian claimed his fees would increase as much as one-third to cover the loss.

Chain stores offer cheap medications as loss leaders to get you in the store where you also buy soda, snacks, clothes and cameras. Veterinarians don't have the luxury of making medications loss leaders.

There's also the concern that vets make sure you get the correct dosage and formulation for your small dog. Chain store pharmacists are not trained in animal physiology or pharmacology.

You get the medication right then and there at the vet's and don't have to make another trip to a pharmacy. There's always a concern whether people will make the effort to get their own medicines and take them properly, let alone make the extra effort for their dog.

Walmart Side

Big box stores note that the law requires veterinarians to provide a copy of the pet's prescription because no federal law currently does. The 'encouragement' of AVMA to do so is nice but not binding. State laws are inconsistent (anyone know what their state law is?).

In a majority of states, a vet can say 'no' or charge a few of any amount when asked to provide a prescription that the owner could fill at Walmart or wherever.

You can go to another vet and that works if you live in Houston or Los Angeles. That doesn't work so well if you live in a small town or rural area.

Someone with a chronically ill or senior dog may not want to change vets (and note that in many states vets, unlike human doctors, don't have to provide your pet's medical records). Those type of pets also are the ones that can't be covered by pet insurance. Owners pay through the nose for medications.

There's no reason veterinarians should be able to hold dog owners hostage. Consumers should be able to price shop for their dog's medications just as owners do for their own.

Without question, competition will cause prescription prices to be reduced.

Ongoing

When Walgreens started a “prescription savings club” about three years ago, it included pets under the family plan. For a $35 annual membership fee, families can obtain any of more than 400 generic medications for $4 per one-month dose, and discounts on a variety of other drugs. http://www.walgreens.com/pharmacy/psc/psc_overview_page.jsp.

Walgreens fills veterinary prescriptions only for medications that it stocks for people. Even with that limitation, Walgreens publicized that it filled 400,000 prescriptions for Fido and Fluffy in just one year.

Note: Walmart and other chain pharmacies offer $4 medications as well. Walgreens was the only one to publicize its volume of pet medications.

Walgreens is looking at expanding with a dedicated pet medication section. Target has been testing offering pet-specific medications at certain stores as have Costco and Sam's Club.

It's Inevitable

Veterinarians need to face the future. Even if the current bill is defeated, it's likely more consumer groups and pet owners will be demanding the right to fill Fido's prescription more cheaply.

With our bad economy and escalating pet care costs, owners need all the help they can get to control costs.

There's no reason veterinarians couldn't offer their own online prescription sales and provide the guidance pet owners need to safely medicate their pets.

The sponsor of HR 4023 is Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah who also sponsored the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act of 2003. That requires eye doctors to provide patients with prescriptions enabling them to purchase their lenses elsewhere.

Human doctors are forced to allow their patients to use other vendors. Why should pet owners be treated differently?

My Recommendations

1. Ask your representatives to vote for HR 4023 or its successor (every legislative tracking service states this bill will not pass in this Congress).

2. Comparison price any medications that your dog needs on a regular basis. When you go to the vet, ask if they can match that price.

3. Ask if the vet can write a generic version of the prescription medication.

4. Ask if there's a human version that you could use safely for your dog. You can pay a lot more money for the dog-version of bismuth subsalicylate or buy the generic version of Pepto-Bismol and get the same thing. Just be sure you know the correct dosage for your small dog.