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    Veterinarian telehealth bill aims to relieve limited access to vet care
    • October 25, 2023

    For the last several years, there have been two primary reasons pets are surrendered to animal shelters: lack of affordable pet-inclusive housing options, and lack of access to affordable veterinary care and/or access to timely vet appointments.

    The bad news: we haven’t fixed the problem with affordable pet-inclusive housing. Not even close. But let’s talk about that another time.

    The good news: California is fixin’ to address limited access to veterinary care by passing Assembly Bill 1399 — which empowers licensed California veterinarians to establish a veterinarian-client/patient relationship through video technology — which basically means now you do not have to first establish care with a vet in-person before you can access telemedicine visits.

    Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law two weeks ago, and it will go into effect on January 1, 2024.

    Currently, California regulations restrict veterinarians from effectively using telehealth and even bar them from giving simple advice and direction to pet owners through telemedicine unless the owners bring their animals into the veterinary hospital, according to a press release from the San Francisco SPCA.

    For new pet owners in particular, this creates a significant challenge when it comes to establishing care with a practitioner.

    Why? When someone adopts a companion animal and needs to establish care with a veterinarian, they are often unable to get a new patient appointment within a few days or weeks, or even months.

    The massive shortage of veterinarians across the country has made it hard for folks to get basic care because the number of practicing vets cannot meet the demand of patients in need of care.

    Many practices aren’t accepting new patients at all. This is particularly true in more rural areas or “veterinary deserts.”

    For animal shelters, the vet shortage has led to more surrenders, more adoption-returns, and a dramatic slow down of adoptions.

    When we talk to pet owners in crisis, the reason most often given for surrendering a pet is because they simply cannot access affordable vet care.

    Since many animals adopted from shelters have known health issues that require ongoing medical management, the shortage of affordable vet care has meant that those animals sit in kennels longer awaiting a new home, or more tragically, lose their lives because there is no reasonable adoption outcome in sight.

    A friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, CEO of the San Francisco SPCA, has been an active supporter of passing AB-1399. She’s thrilled with Governor Newsom’s historic endorsement of the bill.

    In a press release on the San Francisco SPCA website, she said, “Telemedicine is accepted in human medicine and proven to be beneficial and effective. AB 1399 will allow veterinary telemedicine practices to help fill a critical service gap and give California pet owners cost-effective, convenient and timely access to licensed veterinarians. It is past time for the veterinary profession to modernize and address the care gap.”

    Several other animal welfare organizations across the state have also been enthusiastically supportive, such as San Diego Humane Society, the ASPCA, and the Humane Society of the United States.

    Some of Dr. Scarlett’s colleagues in the veterinary industry are not quite so happy about this, though.

    “This bill will help the profitability of televet companies while resulting in substandard care for pets and problems for California veterinarians saddled with the consequences of televet veterinary practice gone wrong,” said Dr. Keith Rode in an op-ed in Capitol Weekly.

    He went on to say, “Establishing a personal connection between a veterinarian and a pet is an essential component of veterinary care. Unlike human patients, pets cannot speak to tell their doctor what is wrong. In fact, instinctually they often hide symptoms. Veterinarians are trained to use sight, sound, smell and touch during a physical exam to help determine what is wrong with an animal patient.”

    I mean, he’s not wrong. In-person care is the gold standard. But what about folks whose circumstances (financially or logistically) make it near impossible for them to access that personal connection?

    As a former animal shelter leader in California, I have seen first hand how devastating it can be for low-income families to have to surrender a beloved pet because of the obstacles they face in obtaining veterinary care.

    These financial, geographical and logistical obstacles often lead families to postpone or forgo treatment for their pets.

    Routine medical issues become huge infections and more expensive medical interventions pet owners cannot afford. Consequently, when these animals end up tragically being surrendered to municipal shelters, it is taxpayers who end up footing the bill.

    Listen, there is no substitute for getting health care in-person. When that is a viable and affordable option, I agree that it’s best for people and animals.

    But in the post pandemic world where access to services is increasingly challenging, the need for a bit more flexibility is necessary in order to close that patient care gap.

    For folks with financial, mobility or transportation issues, access to telemedicine is particularly important.

    Fortunately, as of January 1, those folks will finally have a safe and effective option to get the care they need for their pets. I think it’s a good thing.

    As a child, Jack Hagerman founded and operated his own make-shift animal rescue — taking in stray cats, injured birds, and the occasional bunny. As an adult, he co-founded a critically endangered livestock conservancy on his farm in the Midwest, where he cared for and rehabilitated more than 400 animals in 17 different critically endangered livestock species. He formerly worked with Pasadena Humane and the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society. When he isn’t working with animals, he’s writing about them — hoping to create a better world for our animal friends, one witty tangent at a time.

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    ​ Orange County Register