October 22, 2014

Animal doctors and animal shelters battle over new proposal

Just how much veterinary work can animal shelters perform and keep their nonprofit status?

That’s focus of a quiet, but contentious, behind-the-scenes debate in the South Carolina Statehouse right now. Veterinarians say they’re concerned that nonprofit shelters are beginning to offer more services and surgeries on pets— even though they are not required to follow state standards while doing so.

President of the SC Association of Veterinarians Patricia Hill said her colleagues in some parts of the state are beginning to see more complications in pets due to mistakes made at a few shelters and humane societies. While noting that the problem was not widespread, Hill said she believes there needs to be a “minimum standard of care” for rescue organizations.

“It’s a reasonable expectation that a private person taking an animal to a shelter get a standard of care in that shelter,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. “And veterinarians are concerned that is not always happening.”

She says the state needs to begin monitoring shelters to ensure they follow the same standards that a privately-owned “animal hospital” is required to fall under. The House is considering proposed regulations that would include keeping “patient” records, among other changes.

However, officials who run the shelters say they rely heavily on grants and donations and are worried about higher costs from the increased regulations. Humane Society of South Carolina executive director Wayne Brennessel said urban and rural shelters operate quite differently and that it would be hard to regulate both the same way.

“Are they all going to be held to the same standards, or are they going to be varying standards?” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “I mean, you’re really getting into a mess. And once those standards are set, who goes around and monitors them?”

Vets are also concerned that shelters, which are often subsidized by grants and local government revenue, are able to use those resources to offer some services at lower prices. Hill said that includes declawing, boarding, bathing, and grooming. “There are certainly people who, if they knew that their donations or tax money were going to subsidize that care, I’m sure they would object to that.”

But Brennessel said shelters usually help low-income pet owners who do not believe they can afford traditional vets. “Shouldn’t we be offering those mission-related services at the lowest cost we possibly can?” he asked. He said the Humane Society of SC does not receive taxpayer funds, but does rely heavily on grants and donations. Many shelters do depend upon county and municipal tax revenue, however.

The two sides met a few weeks ago to hammer out their differences before state lawmakers move on the legislation. Rep. David Hiott (R-Pickens) is leading the negotiations. Hiott said he’s taken a lot of “arrows” over the issue in the form of angry calls and emails. “It’s nowhere close to passing,” he said with a chuckle, “When somebody calls and starts screaming into the phone, I tell them just to hold on and relax. It’s a long way from passing and it won’t be the version you’re seeing right now.”

The meeting last month reached a tentative agreement between the two sides. Under the compromise, shelters would still be able to use taxpayer funds for sterilization, rabies vaccines, and micro-chipping. The nonprofits would not be restricted in how they use grants and the organizations could still provide the services to any pet owner regardless of that person’s income level.

The proposal would also require that shelters be regulated by the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (which falls under South Carolina’s labor agency).

Hiott said he expects the two sides to meet again when the legislature comes back from its Easter furlough next week.