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FURTHER to the recent correspondence in Veterinary Record regarding payment for TB testing work in England, while I fully appreciate that payments over groups of farms can be averaged, what is abundantly clear is that we have created an expanding number of farms that have become non-economic to service.
A colleague returned today after testing 216 animals in nearly eight hours on a farm 30 miles from the practice: 358 animals were listed on BCMS (British Cattle Movement Service) and it is not clear where the remainder have gone. Reconciling these losses in 72 hours will be problematic. Under the new rules, if we were to find a reactor, this herd may generate a non-compliance for our practice if the test cannot be submitted on time due to discrepancies in the farmer's recording and identification systems. In our experience, the majority of non-compliances relate to issues outwith the practice's control.
These farms are typically the less organised, more distant farms, which have little constructive contact with the veterinary practice. The changes to the TB payment model now, combined with the existing lower medicine margins and higher fee rates, have served to expand this group of non-economic farms.
Increasing amounts of veterinary expertise are consequently directed towards the well-managed, more profitable, larger farms, and the smaller, increasingly distant farms within larger veterinary practices are becoming less well serviced.
The APHA has clearly stated that no direct charges for TB testing can be levied. There is therefore no effective leverage that the vet can use to improve the efficiency of the testing.
Some veterinary practices may be forced under economic duress to critically evaluate the true value of their clients in these increasingly straitened times and to ask these non-economic or high-risk clients to look for services elsewhere. These farms will be unlikely to choose the practice that has asked them to leave to test their cattle. Either way the link between local vet practice and high-risk farm is separated, contrary to the stated aims of the tendering process.
Ultimately, this expanding group of potential ‘orphan’ farms will become the responsibility of the TB providers and those subcontractors willing to take on ‘orphan’ farms to test and manage.
These often high-risk, non-economic farms, in need of increasing veterinary input, will become serviced in all probability by a rotating group of dedicated low-cost TB testers, recruited to test rather than advise. The loss-making TB testing problem is not resolved, merely shifted from one vet practice to another. An effective route to TB control at farm level through sustained advice from the local vet is lost, contrary to the long-term objective of TB risk reduction and control.
Further consolidation of farm veterinary practices is inevitable and will accelerate. Our own debt-laden new graduates will not be well positioned to compete with the expanding numbers of lower paid, dedicated TB testers and may choose alternative routes for career development. In certain geographical regions with a high proportion of TB testing work, a variety of commercial solutions may develop to secure the practice income, such as increased competition for small animal work, mergers, collaborations or active decisions to cease TB testing or farm work.
On a positive note, over time the development of more mature contractual or monthly subscription arrangements between vets and farmers may develop, which better reflect the true cost of securing the health and productivity of the farm. The lost income from practices can only be regained in part by improving throughput of animals, reducing costs of testing or increasing charges to farmers.
The long-term solution to TB testing costs has always been more effective control of the disease through effective biosecurity and control options using the skills of trained and dedicated vets to help farmers make the right decisions. Only time will tell whether the tendering process has helped get us closer to achieving the stated goal of TB eradication in 23 years time.
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