Payola, Pushers and Profits in the Vet Business
AAHA convention, Long Beach, 2010.
Look at the sign.
Who's convention is this?
A casual passersby might think this is a convention of Pfizer, Merial, and Hill's dog food salespeople.
Do you see any other sign? No?
Look carefully, and you can see a sign that says "Welcome AAHA" that fades into the gray of the building above the pharmaceutical and dog food signage.
This sign is smaller than the corporate branding, is less colorful, and also says quite a bit less.
What the hell is AAHA?
AAHA is the American Animal Hospital Association, and it seems to operate as a sales point or front for big pharma and pet product vendors.
How do we know that AAHA operates as a front for pharmaceutical products and other vendors?
Well the above signage is one small suggestion.
So too is the background of AAHA's new Executive Director, Dr. Michael T. Cavanaugh.
Just before coming to AAHA, Cavanaugh was Director of Veterinary Hospital Services for Pfizer Animal Health.
Before that he was an employee of Hill's Pet Nutrition, a dog food company that pays kickbacks to vets for recommending their food, and which gives seminars to veterinarians on how they can price-gouge their clients.
Prior to his tenure at AAHA, Cavanaugh also worked for Heska, a veterinary laboratory sales equipment company which does things like sponsor veterinary dermatology symposiums in Hawaii.
AAHA itself is a direct middleman vendor to veterinary hospitals through its MarketLink web site. As they note:
Our lineup of more than 400 manufacturers features all the familiar names and more: Pfizer, Bayer, Covidien, IDEXX, Merial, Novartis, Ethicon, Intervet/Schering-Plough. We also offer complete specialty product lines including orthopedics, oncology, ophthalmology, dermatology, and emergency products
On another page of the web site AAHA notes:
It takes a lot of inventory to support a modern practice. We supply more than 18,000 products from more than 400 manufacturers including Pfizer, Bayer, Novartis, Merial, Schering-Plough, IDEXX, Fort Dodge, Purina Diets, and Royal Canin Diets. As the only supplier to come close to stocking 100% of the items veterinary practices need, AAHA MARKETLink provides a one-stop source for drugs and supplies. We cover your day-to-day needs as well as your big-ticket-item purchases with items ranging from pharmaceuticals and biologics to diagnostics and equipment.
What's nefarious about this?
Simple: AAHA sets the guidelines that tell both veterinarians and the lay public how often a dog or cat should be vaccinated, how diabetes in pets should be managed, whether dogs and cats should have routine dental cleaning, and what level of expensive testing and intervention is appropriate for a geriatric dog or cat.
Think about that.
Is AAHA a disinterested party? They are not!
AAHA itself directly profits when goods and services are purchased through its MarketLink web site.
Sales are sales, after all, and so long as the prescribed medicines or tests do not kill a dog or cat too quickly or too often, junk billing promoted by AAHA benefits AAHA directly.
Of course it also benefits AAHA's financial patrons, the pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Abbott, and the medical testing companies and kit-makers, such as Idexx and Heska.
Of course the gravy train does not end there, does it?
The veterinary hospitals also profit when medically unnecessary goods and services are pushed to a gullible public, and of course vets and clinics also profit when they pocket jaw-dropping profits from direct sales of medicines and services that they themselves prescribe.
Some business model!
So who loses?
Well a few hundred thousand dogs and cats lose their lives every year due to autoimmune diseases and cancers triggered by over-vaccination.
Mostly, however, it's consumers who lose when they pay out billions of dollars a year for unnecessary veterinary goods and services.
The obvious ethical conflicts that exist between veterinary hopitals, vets, drug companies and veterinary trade associations are considered "business as usual" in the world of dog and cat care.
If a human doctor over-vaccinated and over-prescribed meds and services like most vets do, lawyers would be camping in their waiting rooms to serve them legal papers.
If your own doctor said you you were over-weight, and he was going to prescribe you food he sold in the lobby and a Pfizer drug he also happened to sell directly from his desk, you would run screaming into the parking lot. Quack!
But in veterinary care this kind of nonsense is normal, and legal actions are rare because most state consumer laws that govern veterinary care are weak, most lawyers are expensive, recoveries for even a dead pet are likely to be only a few hundred dollars, and state veterinary boards are packed with veterinarians who rarely find for consumers.
This is the way it goes in the world of veterinary care.
Everything is done with a wink and a nod, and most of it is facilitated at the highest levels by the AVMA and AAHA who see nothing wrong with putting payola and paid endorsement at the center of their own business model.