Changes to state law could shut down nonprofit vet clinic
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Oct 08, 2012 | 5834 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Evelyn Heedt with her cat, Morris, who was neutered through the S.A.V.E. program. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Evelyn Heedt with her cat, Morris, who was neutered through the S.A.V.E. program. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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Evelyn Heedt has had five cats fixed through a local nonprofit organization’s partnership with a Birmingham-based non-profit, spay-and-neuter clinic.

She chose that route over using a traditional veterinarian because it was cheaper, Heedt said. The clinic charges a base fee of $45 to neuter a male cat and $65 to spay a female cat, about 50 percent less than what Heedt has paid for those same operations at a regular vet.

“We wouldn’t be able to fix that many otherwise,” Heedt said, who found adoption homes for three of the five cats she had fixed through the Saving Animals Volunteer Effort (S.A.V.E.)

The Calhoun County effort, since it started in September 2009, has organized the transportation of animals to the Birmingham clinic to be spayed and neutered to help address animal overpopulation.

But Heedt and others hoping to fix and neuter animals through S.A.V.E. --- and reduce animal overpopulation in the process --- may not have that option if the legislature passes changes to a state law proposed by the Alabama Veterinary Medical Examiners Board, according to volunteers with the S.A.V.E. project.

The changes would prohibit anyone but a licensed veterinarian from providing equipment or materials used in medical procedures on animals. If passed, the changes could cause the Birmingham-based Alabama Spay/Neuter clinic to shut down, effectively shutting down the S.A.V.E efforts in Calhoun County.

“If it closes, we’re shut down,” said Margaret Hatley, a volunteer with S.A.V.E. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”

But the board is proposing the rules to protect the autonomy of veterinarians as they practice healthcare, the proposed rules explain.

“The purpose of this section is to prevent a non-veterinarian from influencing or otherwise interfering with the exercise of a veterinarian’s independent professional judgment,” the proposal states.

However, Mark Nelson, executive director of the clinic, said he believes the board is really taking aim at the four surviving nonprofit clinics in the state and trying to put them out of business.

“They’ve been trying to shut us down for one-and-a-half years and we’ve been in compliance,” Nelson said. “So, what you do is make up new rules.”

Attempts to reach the board members for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

Alabama Spay/Neuter owns the equipment used in the clinic although the veterinary practice is owned by a veterinarian, Dr. William Weber, who also owns Eastwood Animal Clinic, a private practice about two miles from the nonprofit clinic.

He signed on to the clinic about two years ago because of his love for animals, Weber said.

“In 50 years, I have seen thousands and thousands of animals suffer because of animal overpopulation and I will do anything to stop it,” Weber said.

He’s seen strays abused, starved and diseased, and he doesn’t believe adoption will ever fix the problem by itself, as long as the animals are out there continuing to breed.

“It’s like a big, giant snowball rolling down a hill,” Weber said.

Moreover, Hatley said, if the law is passed and the clinic shuts down, many animals won't receive treatment or medical help. Many of the people have a hard enough time paying for their own needs and just can’t afford the added expense of a veterinary office visit and treatment, she said.

“The clinic serves a population that these vets that are so against these clinics, don’t see,” Hatley said.

By the end of 2012, Hatley estimates about 1,300 animals will be sterilized through S.A.V.E.’s program. Through September, the organization had paid for 409 of the procedures.

“The people we serve, those pets have probably never seen a vet unless they were sick and they will not see a vet unless they get sick,” Hatley said. “And sometimes, not even then.”

Dr. Russ Simpkins, said he hasn’t read the proposed rule changes, but he doesn’t believe they are meant to shut down nonprofit clinics. He believes they are meant to protect animals.

If a clinic is owned by someone other than a veterinarian, profit could be the only motive rather than the care of the animal, said Simpkins, owner of Little Canoe Vet Clinic in Ohatchee.

“A person who owns the practice should have a vested interest in the animal and its care,” Simpkins said.

But some veterinarians do believe the changes are aimed at clinics like Alabama Spay/Neuter, which is a non-profit operation.

"I do not support a measure that seems to explicitly target the low-cost spay-neuter clinics in the state of Alabama," Adam Cooner, one of the veterinarians at Animal Medical Center in Anniston, said by e-mail. "The board members have presented this rule change under the auspices of of ensuring quality veterinary care, failing to see the irony in the fact that they inspected and licensed these clinics and the veterinarians who work in them in the first place."

Additionally, Nelson pointed out that human medicine doesn’t have the same restriction placed on use of equipment. Hospitals are often set up the same way that the Birmingham non-profit animal clinic is, with doctors using equipment owned by the hospital which may or may not be owned by a doctor.

Rosemary Blackmon, executive vice president of the Alabama Hospital Association, confirmed that there is no such rule for hospitals. Very few hospitals are owned by individuals, Blackmon said.

“Hospitals can be owned either by a company or by an individual and there is no requirement that the owner has to be a physician,” Blackmon said.

The board will meet Wednesday to discuss the proposed rule changes.

A former resident of Illinois, Heedt once had seven strays fixed in a year at a veterinarian’s office. But the expense --- more than $100 per stray --- was prohibitive, and she wouldn’t be able to sustain that effort. Yet, she can’t stand to see the cats reproduce and bring around kittens she knows will be facing a lifetime of hardship.

“We just don’t want to see a bunch of those babies out there hurt and hungry and cold, homeless,” Heedt said. “It’s very important to get even the strays fixed.”

Star Staff Writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @Lcamper_star.
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