Robert Weedon, DVM, MPH explains a newly enacted law that addresses a veterinary shortage.
On June 9, 2023, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law Florida House Bill 719, historic legislation that will broaden access to spay/neuter during an ongoing veterinary workforce shortage and help address the serious deficit of sterilization surgeries that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sponsored by Senator Colleen Burton and Representative Sam Killebrew, HB 719 exempts from state licensure requirements veterinarians who are licensed and in good standing in another state and who perform spay/neuter and preventative wellness services at the time of sterilization as an unpaid volunteer working under the supervision of a Florida-licensed veterinarian. The bill went into effect on July 1, 2023.
A Steep Reduction of Spay/Neuter Surgeries
As a licensed Florida veterinarian who retired from another state and moved to Florida, I applaud the passage of this legislation. Since December 2021, I have served on the Veterinary Shortage Task Force, convened by the United Spay Alliance to address the shortage of veterinary manpower generally and in the area of low-cost spay/neuter specifically. High Quality, High Volume Spay/Neuter (HQHVSN) clinics simply cannot attract enough veterinarians to address their needs nationally, as well as in Florida and Polk County (where I reside) in particular. A recent article in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science entitled, “COVID-19 associated reduction in elective spay-neuter surgeries for dogs and cats,” reports that in the U.S., “there is a deficit of more than 2.7 million spay/neuter surgeries that animal welfare organizations have yet to address.” The article concludes that as “ongoing workforce shortage of veterinarians and staff threatens the spay-neuter recovery, conditions are ripe for an increase in unwanted litters.”
Bringing Back Retired/Semi-Retired Vets
One of the conclusions that the Task Force has developed regarding the shortage of HQHVSN surgeons is to engage retired or semi-retired veterinarians in the effort. Not long ago, it was estimated that approximately 13% (9,025) of U.S. companion animal veterinarians were over 65 years old, and another 26% (18,050) were between 56 and 65. Many of these veterinarians are likely retired or semi-retired, like me. They might spend part of the year in warmer climes, (“snowbirds” here in Florida), where they might be enticed to work part-time to spay and neuter local animals. As Florida has a large population of “snowbirds,” it seems reasonable to engage this group of veterinarians in that effort, many of whom spend half of their year in our state. As a matter of fact, when I retired from the University of Illinois to move to Florida, I thought I would play golf every day. I soon realized that I would rather spay and neuter cats and dogs, and I do so three days a week in the Lakeland-Winter Haven area. I suspect that there are many similarly situated veterinarians who feel the same way, particularly in the Sunshine State. However, the bureaucratic requirements were onerous and included providing copies of veterinary school transcripts, letters from every state veterinary medical board where I had practiced, and a $600 licensing fee.
“Fixing” Access to Sterilization
A significant shortage of veterinarians in our state has impacted spay/neuter services severely and hinders Floridians from accessing veterinary care. Spay/neuter is an essential element of access to care, and I firmly believe that spay/neuter capacity is truly an access-to-care issue. So many animals that I sterilize have never been to a veterinarian prior to coming in for spay/neuter. Seeing these pets for sterilization services gives us the opportunity to get them started on a lifetime of wellness and prevention. We have done a great job of getting the “have your pets fixed” message out there. The problem is now that the owners are motivated to get their pets sterilized, but they lack access to care because of a shortage of spay/neuter surgeons. This has the unintended consequence of leading to unplanned litters (and the pressure they put on local animal shelters and rescues), and the cause of these unwanted litters has shifted from simply irresponsible owners to a lack of accessible care. Enacting this legislative change will go a long way to addressing this lack of accessible care.
The Impact on Private Vet Businesses
As much as this legislation has the potential to benefit Floridians and their pets, it isn’t perfect. While the provisions of this legislation have the potential to benefit nonprofit shelters and low-cost spay/neuter clinics, the law will not impact private veterinary businesses—volunteer veterinarians taking advantage of the exemption are not eligible to apply for a premises permit, and It is unlikely that many (if any) of the eligible veterinarians are going to volunteer their services for a private practitioner in a for-profit clinic. For example, I recently attended VMX, the world’s largest veterinary conference, held earlier this year in Orlando. While there, I was talking to several private practice veterinarians about this proposed legislation. One veterinarian remarked that she would love to increase the pool of available spay/neuter surgeons that could perform sterilization surgeries in her for-profit practice. She currently does not have the time or expertise to offer that service broadly but would be happy to pay an eligible veterinarian per diem or per case. In this way, the measure constrains the potential positive effect that this legislation could have for Florida private practicing veterinarians.
Benefitting Florida Pets
Even with its imperfections, this new law will go a long way towards increasing spay/neuter capacity in Florida. Snowbird veterinarians, those who spend part of their year in our state, as well as retired or semi-retired veterinarians, will be able to contribute to the sterilization efforts of nonprofit organizations in their communities without facing burdensome, unnecessary licensing requirements. Another added benefit is that veterinarians licensed in other states could come to Florida for HQHVSN training without the need to first obtain a temporary Florida veterinary license. Each one of these things will prove to be beneficial to Floridians and their pets. Additionally, I am optimistic that this legislation will serve as a template for other states to expand reciprocity to veterinarians and, hopefully, these other states will enact similar legislation. All of this will significantly benefit the animals in our communities.
 Guerios SD, Porcher TR, Clemmer G, Denagamage T, Levy JK. COVID-19 associated reduction in elective spay-neuter surgeries for dogs and cats. Front Vet Sci. 2022 Sep 13;9:912893. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2022.912893. PMID: 36176703; PMCID: PMC9513967.
 Bain B, Hansen C, Ouedraogo F, Radich R, Salois M. 2020 Economic State of the Veterinary Profession. Veterinary Economics Division, American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, IL, August 2020, 59 pp.
 See Veterinary Care Accessibility Map: https://www.accesstovetcare.org/vcas-map