Reflections on the 2016 AVMA Legislative Fly-In

Christina Betta of Catonsville, Maryland, is a second-year DVM student at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine pursuing the small animal track. Her interests include orthopedics, rehabilitation medicine, acupuncture, public and corporate veterinary medicine, and public policy. She hopes to work in small animal clinical practice after graduation, and possibly pursue a surgery internship and residency, as well as public policy or academia in the future.

Morgan Brown and Hannah Cheng at Homecoming
AVMA Fly-In attendees, including veterinary students and veterinarians, pose in front of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. before meeting with their elected officials on March 1, 2016.
(Photo by Scott Nolen/AVMA)

They always tell you to avoid religion and politics, but in early March, I broke that rule and attended the 2016 AVMA Legislative Fly-In. Some may wonder what ever possessed me to visit the District, especially during the craziness of an election year. Ironically, my interest in policy began far from the United States.

In July 2012, I attended the University of Pretoria in South Africa for a Vets-in-the-Wild trip which empowered me to become more involved in policy. Our guides, local South Africans, facilitated discussions throughout the trip on various issues affecting the country. Around campfires, we would discuss issues ranging from elephant overpopulation and rhino poaching to more controversial issues such as game hunting. As the foreign students included Americans, French, and Australians, we came with our own preconceived notions and opinions. However, after hearing more personal accounts from our guides and becoming more informed about the issues, we gained a greater appreciation for the problems faced by the country. Our guides encouraged us to be “ambassadors” to our own respective countries by expressing these issues from a fair standpoint that expresses their own concerns. I came back to the States empowered and tried to begin discussion of these issues in various classes and began to wonder whether I might be able to do the same here.

Christina Betta in front of the Supreme Court Building
Christina Betta poses in front of the office of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin.

So I traded the comfort and familiarity of Blacksburg, for a much different scene: Capitol Hill. Students from almost every veterinary school (even from Canada!) came to D.C. They came with different political views, beliefs, ethnicities, and backgrounds, but we all had a similar love for the veterinary profession that united us despite any differences. On Monday, we were briefed on the issues we would specifically discuss with our legislators. These included two acts: the Fairness to Pet Owners Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. I want to share more information on these bills with you so that you can form your own opinions and have the opportunity to reach out to your legislators.

The Fairness to Pet Owners Act was introduced a few years ago and would make it mandatory for veterinarians to write a prescription script for every client regardless of whether they wanted to go elsewhere for a prescription or not. The AVMA has taken a stand opposing this act. First, the AVMA always encourages veterinarians to provide scripts at a client’s request and many states already require this. However, this would be an administrative burden to veterinarians, wasting time writing unnecessary scripts that could be better spent on other patients that require care. Additionally, many pharmacies are untrained in veterinary pharmacology, which could put patients at risk for accidental toxicosis. The AVMA still asserts that veterinarians should be the primary contact for any questions regarding prescription medications. While the AVMA has not heard of problems regarding denial of scripts to clients, they understand the frustration and believe it should be handled on a state-by-state basis and include state veterinary medical associations.

I won’t go into much detail regarding the Higher Education Act as I’m sure many of us are all too familiar with student debt. This was probably the main issue that I discussed at length with the staffers I met with, especially since I have first-hand experience. The AVMA is in support of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The AVMA mentioned several points of contention that if achieved would result in dramatic decreases in student debt load. They include but are not limited to:

  • Abolishing origination fees. These can range from 1 to 4 percent and are charged before the loans are even disbursed. There is no mention of these fees to those applying for loans.
  • Decreasing student interest rates. These can range from 6 to 8 percent and may even increase.
  • Options to refinance. Currently, students cannot refinance their loans. You can refinance your car or your house but not your education.
  • Continuing loan forgiveness programs.

This issue is obviously much bigger than this brief paragraph, but these are just a few of the points we touched on before wrapping up the day with mock appointments to practice our delivery.

Christina Betta in front of the Supreme Court Building
Christina Betta's visit to Washington, D.C. included a stop at the Supreme Court Building.

On Tuesday, March 1, we had the opportunity to put our work into action and went to the Hill. As part of the Maryland contingency, we had five appointments: two with our senators and three with our individual district representatives. Although we only met with staffers, I was no less nervous as I felt the realization that I was really doing this. However, once we settled in for our first meeting, I realized that there was no better person to advocate for students burdened by crippling debt loads than someone living it firsthand. In addition to mentioning the various ways that we could try to solve the problem, I drew out some other, often unmentioned, side effects. Many staffers were surprised to learn that the veterinary profession has one of the highest suicide rates. Now there is no doubt that there are many factors that play a role, but I have to believe that struggling under an unreasonable amount of debt has to contribute. Additionally, I expressed a concern about the effect on diversity within our profession. I, like many others, have been blessed to be able to afford an education, but others do not have that option and must settle for what pays, and right now that isn’t higher education. We are missing out on having amazing people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds in our profession. Finally, I shared the comments that many provided in the survey I sent. Sharing your words, and not just my own, meant so much to them. To hear that people question every day if they made the right decision. To hear the worry about whether you’ll be able to own a house, get married, or have kids. These are real issues that will extend even to our retirement which may be hard to currently imagine.

So this is my one petition, my one plea to you: don’t be silent. I don’t care what your stance is on the issue, but research the facts, come to your own position, and then assert it. I understand too well how all-consuming veterinary school is and right now this seems to be our world. But to all my fellow students, whether you believe it or not, in a short amount of time, you will be in the professional world. If you want to have a say in what that world looks like as a veterinarian or just a human being, you must be involved with politics. I arrived in Washington probably just as jaded about politics as many of my colleagues. We have been made to feel powerless, as though only those with full pocketbooks or the loudest voices matter. But nothing could be further from the truth. Your representatives are representing you, but they only have their own experiences and opinions to draw from. Share your own thoughts. Not necessarily as a Democrat or Republican but just as a human being. This is our profession and our futures and if we remain silent, others will decide it for us.