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A 'Dogged' Debate on Pets and Prescriptions

Members swap dog stories but don't agree on bill to cut costs

Michigan Rep. Fred Upton with Bugsy, a Boston terrier who is one of four office pets. (Upton staff photo)

House members found a rare note of accord on Friday as they considered the plight of a 16-year-old terrier name Sammie.  

When Sammie, who has the distinction of belonging to Texas Republican Rep. Michael C. Burgess, got sick a year ago, the family veterinarian prescribed a medication that would give him a few more months to live.  

“Well doggone it, that little dog is still going strong today,” Burgess said.  

16-year-old Sammie outlived his vet's initial prognosis. (Burgess family photo)
16-year-old Sammie outlived his vet's initial prognosis. (Burgess family photo)

Sammie, was one of a number of pets — most of them dogs — name-dropped last week as a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee delved into the particulars of a bill that would increase competition and reduce costs in the pet medication industry.  

Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky informed the panel that she has two rescue dogs named Franklin and Eleanor — like the Roosevelts, a press aide later confirmed. Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan shared snapshots of Bugsy, a Boston Terrier, and Scout, a Pomeranian, two of four dogs who make daily appearances in his congressional offices — It’s a “9-to-Fido” operation, the Michigan Republican quipped.  

Valletta, a Maltese, is like a member of the family for Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. (Pallone family photo)
Valletta, a Maltese, is like a member of the family for Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. (Pallone family photo)

Not to be outdone, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. said his Maltese, Valletta, is like a member of his family, “Although she likes my wife a lot better than me,” he added.  

The comment solicited an out-of-order response from Burgess, the subcommittee chairman, who said, “We all do."  

But the consensus ended there. Members acknowledged that decisions regarding pet medical treatment are rife with the same contentious and costly considerations that dominate the debate over health care for their human counterparts.  

A bill known as the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2015 and sponsored by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, would open up competition in the pet medication industry, which costs Americans $7 billion a year but is not subject to the same market forces as human drugs, according to a Federal Trade Commission report . A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Connecticut Democrat, Richard Blumenthal.  

With few generics available in the pet medication market and most owners paying the costs out-of-pocket, rather than through an insurance provider, the bills can rapidly add up.  

Those costs can be “burdensome” to households that already own pets, and “prohibitive” to those that would like one, the report said. It found that high costs could result in diminished pet health, fewer adoptions and failure of treatment programs prescribed by a veterinarian.  

Schakowsky said she had felt some of the pain herself. In addition to regular heart worm pills and other prescriptions she buys for both dogs, she also buys pills and shots that, “Ellie,” who has Addison’s disease, must receive daily, she said.  

Opponents questioned the need for such a law when 36 states already require veterinarians to provide copies of prescriptions, so that owners can shop around for the medication, according to documents provided to the committee. They also questioned whether such a law would interfere in the relationship between veterinarians and their patients.  

“The basic issue we have here is whom do you trust?” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore, a veterinarian.  “Is this about trusting the pet medication industry that is in this purely from a business standpoint to make money off of your pet, or is this about trusting a veterinarian, who has the best interest of you and your pet in mind.”  

Burgess, the owner of the aggrieved Sammie, was among the bill's skeptics. “There is value to coming in and talking to the vet from time to time, and I don’t think you can discount that,” he said.  

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and his Cavelier King Charles spaniel Ruby (Chaffetz family photo)
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and his Cavelier King Charles spaniel Ruby (Chaffetz family photo)

Chaffetz, a former pharmaceutical company marketing executive, however, described the issue as a simple question of free market capitalism. “The idea of opening up the market and providing more access is a principle I believe in,” he said.  

Chaffetz said he has owned a long line of domestic animals: a sheepdog named Sox, a turtle, a snake, a gerbil and a cat named Flower. These days, the Chaffetz family is partial to Cavalier King Charles spaniels, including the current family pet, Ruby — not because Ronald Reagan had one, he said, but because they don’t bark. He predicted that the bill would attract supporters from both sides of the aisle.  

“I think dogs transcend the partisanship that is Washington, D.C.,” Chaffetz said.  

His stance was supported by the FTC report, which concluded that better access to prescriptions would likely increase competition in the pet medication industry and that increased availability of generics would result in cost savings for consumers.  

“This is ultimately all about consumers,” said Tara Koslov, an FTC official who testified at the hearing. “It’s about giving consumers information so they can exercise their choices in the marketplace.”  

Burgess said that he doubted the issue would go much further during this Congress. “On both sides of the dais there was opposition to the concept,” he said. “It was hard to define the problem that we were trying to solve.”  

Burgess also questioned the idea that pets would benefit from the health care reforms that have been introduced to their owners.  

“I know my dog wouldn’t want to go to an HMO,” he said. "And Sammie for sure don't want no Obamacare."  

Andrews Siddons contributed to this report. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.