We really went wrong calling our elected senate and congressional legislators “lawmakers.” Because that is what they think they should be doing, constantly making laws whether they are really needed or not. Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah has decided that, as a group, veterinarians are “money grubbers” about the drugs they dispense and that this needs federal government regulation. He is shepherding the Fairness to Pet Owners Act through congress. His pitch is that the law “promotes competition and helps consumers save money by giving them the freedom to choose where they buy their drugs.”


The law is unnecessary because most states already mandate that we veterinarians offer prescriptions. More tragically, it causes confusion for the pet owner and may delay urgent treatment that could put the pet’s life in jeopardy.


Filling a Pet's Prescription Costs Money


Rep. Matheson’s law is predicated on the idea that veterinarians charge unfairly for medications. I am not going to speak for all of my colleagues, but this is not generally the case.


  1. We are individual practices and provide drugs for the convenience of our clients. We do not enjoy the discounts available for buying in massive bulk like Wal-Mart, Costco, Pet Meds, etc. And we cannot use drug sales as a “lost leader” like large retailers can. They take a monetary loss on the medications in order to drive traffic to the store for other purchases, where the profit is much larger.
  1. Filling a prescription requires a person to fill that order. With dispensing time and label preparation time (10-15 minutes, computerization has actually made this process longer than manual processing but is necessary for record keeping) means $3-4 dollars in labor costs per prescription. Then there is the cost of rent, insurance, and utilities of the pharmacy space. This will vary tremendously from practice to practice. Next to be factored in is the label, prescription vial and printing costs.
  1. Finally we get to the cost of the drugs. Yes, there are generic drugs that are inexpensive for us to buy and allow a fair profit margin, but half of our drug inventory is patented drugs. We cannot charge a fair mark-up on these drugs because our clients would not be able to afford it, so we make very little or nothing on these drugs. Excessive mark-ups would discourage use and the health of the pet would suffer.


Prescription Confusion


Presently, state laws require veterinarians to offer a prescription if the owner requests one. Rep. Matheson’s bill requires that we write the prescription first and then offer our alternative. But what is going to be the first question that the pet owner asks? “How much will the pharmacy charge?” We have no idea. It will be up to the owner to research that because we simply don’t have the time to do their comparison shopping. In the case of a critical patient that requires immediate medication this will mean delays that may impact the recovery or survival of that particular pet.


As I said, I am not going to defend each of my veterinary colleagues, but we do not pursue this career for excessive economic gain. Any research will show that we are one of the lowest compensated medical professions. This is not a “poor me” moment, only a statement that we love our contribution to the pet owning community. We are not trying to unfairly charge our clients for medications. Our state agencies make sure we don’t. We don’t need a federal bill that is unenforceable and is a ploy for more votes and political contributions in the name of protecting veterinary consumers.


Dr. Ken Tudor


Image: Ermolaev Alexander / Shutterstock