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Slaves to the market

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ON December 1, in a press release entitled ‘Consumer minister brings competition to pet and animal drugs market’, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) described the recent legislation implementing the Competition Commission’s recommendations in the following terms:

‘Measures to stimulate competition in the veterinary medicines market should lead to cheaper prices for pet owners, Consumer Minister Gerry Sutcliffe announced today.

‘Prescription charges – costing up to £30 a time – have been suspended for three years, and vets will have to display prices for a range of pet medicines in their waiting areas.

‘The changes will help encourage pet owners to shop around for the best prices, and end the stranglehold that veterinary surgeons have over where pet owners buy their medicines.’

The day before, defending the new legislation in a standing committee debate in the House of Commons, Mr Sutcliffe had described the measure requiring veterinary surgeons to provide free prescriptions for a period of three years as being ‘simply aimed at correcting a market failure’. He said that the measure was not intended as an attack on veterinary surgeons, ‘nor do we wish to penalise the veterinary profession in any way’. He told the committee that ‘a victim culture seems to apply to veterinary professionals and they seem to focus on the issue of a prescription charge when they should be looking at the position relating to their profession, which is acknowledged to be of great value in the UK.’

Whether vets have succumbed to ‘a victim culture’, as the minister suggested, or whether they have good grounds to feel victimised is a matter for debate. However, they could be forgiven for feeling victimised when his own department issues a statement to the press like the one above. Talk of a ‘stranglehold’ and (elsewhere in the press release) ‘hefty’ prescription fees is hardly helpful and will do nothing to ease discussions with clients about why, as a result of the Competition Commission’s recommendations, consultation fees will have to rise.

The debate in the standing committee was one of two occasions on which the DTI’s legislation has been discussed in Parliament since it came into force at the end of October, and was the result of efforts by the BVA and its members to ensure that the legislation was considered in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The legislation remains in force, and will not be changed as a result of this parliamentary scrutiny, but the exercise has at least provided an opportunity to register the profession’s concerns with members of both Houses. Consideration by the House of Commons standing committee was prompted by an Early Day Motion signed by a number of MPs (VR, November 12, 2005, vol 157, p 602), while the other debate, in the House of Lords, was initiated by Baroness Byford, an honorary associate of the BVA.

Points made during the debates were that the requirements regarding free prescriptions would reduce transparency in pricing, and be unfair to clients who did not require a prescription or whose animals did not need a medicine. The point was also made that higher consultation fees would deter some owners from seeking treatment for their animals, with adverse consequences for animal health and welfare. Concern was expressed, too, that the changes would affect the financial viability of some practices, leading to reduced veterinary cover in some areas.

The Government’s response – from Lord McKenzie in the House of Lords, and Mr Sutcliffe in the House of Commons – reiterated points it has made before and served to confirm what has been clear since the Competition Commission produced its report and the Government promptly accepted its recommendations more than two years ago (VR, April 19, 2003, vol 152, pp 481, 482-484); namely, that, having identified that ‘complex monopolies’ existed in the supply of prescription-only veterinary medicines, and decided on market remedies, the Government was determined to see those remedies applied.

With the legislation now firmly in place, the profession has no option other than to live with the requirements and adapt to the changes as best as it can. In the four years since it initiated the Competition Commission’s inquiry, the Government has maintained what in other circumstances might be considered a touching faith in the powers of the market, while failing to take account of the wider picture. This is again exemplified by the DTI’s press release, which makes no mention of animal health and welfare but makes much of the benefits of market forces and giving consumers the freedom to shop around. The press release concludes, ‘Improving competition across all markets is good for consumers and good for business.’ Where does animal welfare fit into that?

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