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HAVING recently been rebranded, Animal Health, formerly the State Veterinary Service, looks keen to move forward in a number of areas. Its new website, at www.defra.gov.uk/animalhealth, already includes more information than was available on the old site. In addition, after a series of delays, it seems ready to move forward on the issue of lvi (local veterinary inspector) contracts. It has recently written to lvis, informing them that it is embarking on an ‘Official Veterinarian Reform Programme’. This programme is being piloted among a number of practices in the West Midlands. For the time being, it should be business as usual for most lvis. However, the launch of the programme could herald significant changes in the working relationship between the state and private practitioners.
The reform programme seeks to identify ‘the constituents of a new agreement between Animal Health and Official Veterinarians (ovs) which will replace the current arrangements’. It is being driven by the fact that, as a government agency, Animal Health needs to be accountable to the Government, both financially and in terms of the quality of its work. The drive towards greater accountability and audit extends not just to the agency itself, but also to those who might be subcontracted to do work on the Government's behalf. Animal Health notes that the longstanding relationship between the state and private veterinary sectors has proved ‘very successful’. However, it says, the current arrangements are in need of reform to provide the levels of assurance now required as well as a clear contractual basis for the work undertaken.
One consequence of the reform programme is that the term ‘lvi’ is being ditched in favour of ‘ov’. This, Animal Health explains, is the eu officially designated description for vets performing work on behalf of member states. ‘Whilst the term lvi has traditionally been used it is inadequate to describe the wider role, responsibilities and status of ovs.’
Animal Health says it aims to work closely with the veterinary profession to identify the business standards that are required for an ‘overarching framework agreement’ between the agency and veterinary practices, and to identify improvements offering mutual benefits. It emphasises that the reform programme seeks to improve the current arrangements, not to sweep them away, and that it seeks to build upon and improve the existing relationship, ‘recognising the professionalism and importance of private practice in delivering government policy’. It says the programme will not disrupt the tripartite relationship that exists between owners of animals, ovs and Animal Health, and that, as at present, owners will largely remain free to choose any ov to undertake required work. It further states that the reform programme does not seek to introduce competitive tendering for ov work. These are important undertakings, and Animal Health must stick to them as the programme develops.
The model favoured by Animal Health will involve the introduction of a framework agreement, establishing the terms governing future arrangements between the agency and veterinary practices. ov practices which demonstrate that they can meet the business standards defined in the agreement will be able to apply for ‘framework supplier’ status. ov practices that cannot or choose not to meet the standards will not be excluded from undertaking ov work but, Animal Health says, ‘in order to provide the necessary audit trails and quality assurance requirements there may be a need for Animal Health to introduce additional accounting and audit requirements, including the possibility of more frequent audit and monitoring visits to practices’.
The business standards to be applied have still to be determined and will be investigated in the pilot study in the West Midlands. Depending on the outcome, the pilot might then be expanded to include practices in Scotland and Wales, to test any differences that might exist between the devolved administrations. Clearly, the pilot study will play a crucial role in helping to define appropriate standards, which need to be practical, and the outcome could significantly affect ways of working in the future.
From its own point of view, Animal Health sees possible benefits in terms of better financial assurance and assurance of quality control processes; less bureaucracy leading to improved efficiency; the introduction of a risk-based approach to reporting; and improved information flow. From the point of view of practices, it suggests that benefits might include a better defined relationship with Animal Health than exists at present, with more clarity over roles and responsibilities; reduced bureaucracy, such as removing the need to report negative test results; a quicker and more auditable payment process; and better access to training and information. Other possible benefits to be explored might include ‘genuine partnership working’ which, it says, could improve practices' ability to plan work and resources. It says there is also an opportunity to explore how public funding is best spent in delivering animal health and welfare strategies, including an examination of how much of the work delivered by Animal Health could be performed by private practice.
Whether those benefits can be realised in practical terms, and in ways which are viable for practices, remains to be seen. However, there will clearly be a need to keep a close eye on developments in the months ahead.