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The Consequences of Bill 31

By Dr. Phil Buote, Deputy Registrar and Complaints Director, Alberta Veterinary Medical Association


For more than a century, the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) has served the public interest, regulating the veterinary profession in our province with an exemplary record, ensuring veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists adhere to professional standards of practice. Every veterinarian I’ve known over the course of my career came to the profession with a love of animals and a commitment to ensure the highest quality of care on behalf of our animal patients. This puts us in a unique position as healthcare providers. Veterinarians are advocates and guardians for the health and welfare of animals. In other words, we’re their voice. Yet this voice and our unblemished 101-year record as a self-regulated profession are now under attack, as the Government of Alberta seeks to give it equal treatment under the law with shady threats to consumer protection. Without any consultation with the ABVMA (aside from two phone calls, vaguely warning of coming changes), the Minister of Service Alberta Stephanie McLean is moving forward with Bill 31, A Better Deal for Consumers and Businesses Act, which includes amendments to the Veterinary Profession Act (VPA).

The bill targets the likes of ticket scalpers, loan sharks, and used car salespeople. Included among them are veterinarians. I ask in genuine disbelief: how can this be? Veterinarians practice out of a sense of duty, contributing our highly specialized services to our communities, making them better and safer, and we’ve been doing so for decades. Indeed, this is why we’ve earned and been entrusted with self-regulation, a privilege bestowed on our profession in 1906, when the province was scarcely a year old. Until now, the government has always delegated regulatory functions to the ABVMA, recognizing veterinarians are more qualified to make decisions regarding the delivery of veterinary medicine than politicians. Can any of this be said for predatory loans sharks targeting vulnerable citizens? What about people behind the dragnet of computer bots hoarding concert tickets and reselling them at exorbitant prices? Or how about the business of fleecing consumers with the sale of defective used vehicles? No. There is no reasonable or fair comparison. Yet here we are, and our profession is shocked and dismayed. How is this anything but a devaluing of veterinary medicine, as the government overreaches and intrudes into our self-regulation, without expressed justifiable cause or anything more than the pretense of consultation?  

Bill 31 targets the veterinary profession in three key areas. The first amendment to the VPA was drafted on the false assumption that veterinarians aren’t acquiring consent or disclosing fees for treatments and procedures. In response, the bill proposes regulation requiring this acquisition and disclosure, with the exemption of emergencies. Had there been consultation with the veterinary profession, the minister would know this amendment merely replicates an existing bylaw already enforced by the ABVMA. This bylaw upholds a universal requirement for healthcare providers to obtain informed consent—a vital part of which is fee disclosure—before proceeding with any treatments or procedures.

The second VPA amendment enables fee advertising for certain defined services, overruling existing ABVMA guidelines disallowing the practice. The intent of the ABVMA guidelines is to protect the public and animals from the degradation of veterinary care resulting from aggressive marketing and pricing. By allowing the profession to advertise fees, the government is effectively placing bargain hunting above assurances of acceptable standards of care. This new reality creates potential for a pricing race to the bottom, where the losers are the animals for whom we provide care.

The final amendment empowers the government to drive all regulatory change within the veterinary profession, effectively relegating the ABVMA to a consultancy role. Given the absence of consultation on changes to the VPA in Bill 31, this amendment inspires little confidence there will be any substantive consultation in the future. We’ve already heard hints of new legislation on the horizon and the ABVMA has yet to be consulted on it, either. This legislation appears to pertain to the capping and setting of fees in our profession, without any demonstrated understanding of the impacts.

Failure to recognize or understand the true costs of practicing veterinary medicine will directly impact animals. In the interest of protecting animal health and welfare, veterinary practices must retain the flexibility to set appropriate fees so they don't have to make difficult decisions regarding facilities, equipment, their capacity to employ appropriately trained veterinary technologists, or the feasibility of operational procedures including, for example, administering costlier and more effective pain control medications. Practices faced with these decisions will have no choice but to lower practice standards, while animals are burdened with the negative impact of these changes.

We must not forget veterinarians are small business owners who need to keep their practices economically viable. They have significant market-specific inventory, operational, and capital expenses that differ in rural and urban settings and can be regionally unique. A one-size-fits-all ‘industry standard’ or regulated fee will have a disproportionate impact on practices. They must remain flexible in different market conditions to keep their doors open and provide the acceptable standard of care to animals. Furthermore, these changes will threaten the number of viable veterinary practices in the province. Price caps, aggressive advertising, lowering practice standards—these will represent a fundamental and detrimental shift in how veterinarian medicine is practiced in our province. It’s commodification of a medical service, with emphasis on the deal instead of the highest quality of care.

Imagine this same legislation being applied in other areas. What if industrial contractors were targeted and construction fees were set without industry consultation—what would be the outcome? For one, there would be far fewer tradespeople working in the province, and budgets would be slashed to keep margins viable when building homes, commercial buildings, or infrastructure. When forced to the wall in a matter of survival, economy always wins over quality. Would such consumer price protection be in the public interest? At the point of purchase, it might seem so. But not once the long-term effects materialize. Extend this thought experiment to any specialized profession. The outcomes would be serious. This is what our profession faces in Alberta, and it comes at a time when there is already a shortage of veterinarians practicing in the province. The amendments in Bill 31 will add substantial stress to an already difficult situation.

Yet recent media coverage and words from Minister McLean have portrayed the profession differently, plucking one or two grievances and positioning them as justification for the amendments in Bill 31. As Complaints Director for the ABVMA, I know, first hand, there were only 26 formalized complaints investigated by the ABVMA last year—a minute number compared to the sheer volume of assessments, treatments and procedures carried out daily across Alberta. The stories we’re not hearing in this debate are from the thousands of pet owners across the province who’ve built exceptional relationships with their veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists—people who could tell inspiring stories of how these professionals went to tremendous lengths to provide the best possible care. We regularly hear from members who’ve formed close bonds with clients and patients, built on compassion and intimate knowledge of patient history.

Media and government narratives are also deafeningly silent on the staggering number of volunteer hours and pro bono work veterinarians offer in service to people and animals. Across Alberta, veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists donate their professional service to low-income spay/neuter clinics, ensuring cost is not a barrier to preventing unwanted litters and animal homelessness. During the Fort McMurray fires, I personally witnessed veterinarians working long shifts without pay in the emergency command centre in Edmonton, never complaining and never wavering until every owned animal who had been separated from an owner was assessed and provided care. Clinics across the province account for pro bono work in their budgets and waive fees in critical instances where pet owners cannot afford the cost of care. There is no mandate or guideline for this practice—it comes from a place of compassion that drew these veterinarians to the profession in the first place. What’s more, these contributions aren’t advertised or made in search of validation. They’re made quietly and humbly, out of advocacy for our patients. I only mention them now to offer a picture of what our profession actually is, and to distinguish it from the company it keeps in Bill 31.

Now, as Bill 31’s VPA  amendments make their way through the procedural gears of the Legislative Assembly, our profession and the Alberta public are presented with a new reality, one where government bureaucrats, not veterinarians, are the drivers empowered to make sweeping regulatory changes to the veterinary profession. And despite repeated requests to meet with the Minster, we still haven’t been told why or shown any substantive justification for these alarming legislative amendments. Whether they’re well intentioned or a politically expedient strategy in the build up to an election, we can be certain of one thing: this is a dangerous precedent that will degrade the quality of veterinary care and the health and welfare of animals across Alberta.