Corporate vet takeover risks ‘astronomical’ call-out fees and ‘3-hour guarantees’

Lay incorporation of veterinary practices could see “astronomical” call-out charges and 80-mile radius coverage with “three-hour guarantees” if allowed to continue, Veterinary Ireland has warned.

The prospect of young vets buying a share in a practice from retiring vets would also “probably be finished”, according to representatives of the vet body.

Past president of Veterinary Ireland Gerry Neary addressed the issue of lay incorporation – or the buying up of veterinary practices by non-veterinary corporations – before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine yesterday evening (Tuesday, February 26).

“They will forever more be probably unmotivated employees of a big corporate,” Neary told the committee.

One of the key issues brought up by the vet representative is the lack of accountability of such corporations to any authority in the manner that vets are currently legally and ethically accountable to the Veterinary Council.

The issue, currently under review by the Veterinary Council, has seen four practices purchased by two British corporations to date, with estimates of between 40 and 100 more at a “pre-purchase” phase.

“I’m retired from practice at this stage, but the one thing that bothers me is the demotivation of the profession that will happen if this happens, apart from all the economic things. You’re paid a wage; five o’clock in the evening you’re paid ‘x’ number of hours per week.

Most vets as you all know go over and beyond 5:00pm, whatever you have to do at any given time. It’s your practice; it’s your business; it’s your client, it’s your neighbour.

“You just get on. I’ve often been dressed to go to a family communion and had to lamb a ewe or section a ewe. I remember getting blood all over – you just do it.

“But I’m not so sure that this motivation would remain – I’m sure it wouldn’t remain. I’ve been over and back to England and I’ve seen what’s happened.”

The president warned that in England the large animal practice has gone form local to regional, with most companies only keeping the small animal practices, getting rid of the large animal element.

He noted that they either “closed it down and left nobody there or sold it on to some group of fellows who buy a big area”.

But you’re talking about 80-mile radiuses; you’re talking about herd health programmes, you’re talking about three-hour guarantee to get to an emergency case and astronomical fees.

Neary warned that this had “literally done away with sheep practices altogether” due to the fees being charged for lambing or sectioning a ewe at night, which would not justify bringing in the ewe in the first place.

This could lead to “huge animal welfare issues”, he warned.

“All those types of practices in Ireland – I’ve worked in a very heavily sheep populated area and getting up at 3:00am in the morning to put back in a lamb’s intestines for €15 is what you do – you just do it because you’re a vet.

And we’ve seen our medical colleagues diverge away to out-of-hours services and I don’t think I’d like to see us going down the English route of veterinary practices or medical colleagues in Ireland where out-of-hours services are far away.

“Our system of veterinary is town-based, village-based, it’s continuous 24-7, 365 and I think you should protect that.”

On the matter of temporary veterinary inspectors (TVIs) and the prospect of vets being recruited by the Department of Agriculture for ports post-Brexit, Neary said: “We were consulted, briefly – well, no, we were told it was happening, and regards availability, the veterinary council register has increased from 2,600 to 2,800 this year.”