Vet care in Victoria would become free or subsidized under proposed new laws to introduce a Medicare system for animals dubbed “Veticare”, to make seeing a vet more affordable and accessible.
Australia is experiencing a national vet shortage and combined with an increase in pet ownership during the pandemic, it has resulted in some vets closing their doors, particularly in rural and regional areas.
In response to the issue, the Animal Justice Party will introduce a motion into the Victorian parliament which includes establishing public vet hospitals, upskilling vet nurses and setting up a bulk-billing model for vet care.
It remains to be seen how many supporters the minor party will be able to win over with its bold new plan — but here’s how it says it would work.
Why has it been introduced?
Pets and wildlife are not getting the care they need because animal owners and rescuers simply cannot afford it, according to the Animal Justice Party leader Andy Meddick.
“Victoria has a vet shortage crisis, and it is not just creating animal welfare issues, it is driving up prices and placing unimaginable pressure on vets to work overtime, unsupported,” Mr Meddick said.
“Just like we can visit our doctor with a Medicare card, Veticare creates public clinics allowing for free or low-cost appointments.”
Penny Hocking has been a vet for more than three decades and said Veticare could make a huge difference, particularly in rural and regional areas.
“Some people are driving hours to get vet care in regional Victoria, because there is very limited after-hours services there and in the cities it can be very expensive,” she said.
“When people cannot afford vet care, not only does the animal not get adequate care but often they can be euthanized or surrendered to a rescue group who are burdened with the vet expenses.”
What would it cover and how would it work?
The system would cover everything from companion animals needing minor care, including a yearly check-up and injections, to more serious operations.
People who have domestic animals would pay an annual fee and receive a Veticare card.
The Veticare card means pet owners would pay a scheduled fee (as with Medicare) and depending on an owners financial situation, they would be charged a gap fee.
The laws would also introduce government-funded public veterinary hospitals which would be bulk-billed with no over-the-counter fees.
Vet clinics are privately owned and there are currently no public clinics in Victoria.
Who would be eligible?
Every Victorian pet owner would be eligible to have the scheduled fee covered for their vet appointment, but the gap fee would differ based on a person’s financial situation.
Concession, pension and healthcare cardholders would have the entire costs covered, receiving the same benefits as Medicare, for their pets through Veticare.
Animal rescuers and carers would be provided with a Veticare card but would not have to pay an annual fee, to recognize the contribution they make to protect animals.
“Vets are often under stress because they have to attend to wildlife and use resources at their clinics they are not reimbursed for, we want to make sure they get that reimbursement,” Mr Meddick said.
As part of the laws, dedicated wildlife hospitals would also be set up in regional areas with wildlife-skilled vets to reduce the burden on other clinics, with the first hospital to be located on the Great Ocean Road near the Surf Coast.
“There is currently no wildlife vet or specialty service for the entire area of western Victoria,” Mr Meddick said.
Is there anywhere else in the world that does it?
The proposal is an Australian first, and could be the first in the world.
“The idea sprung from the question how do we fix the vet crisis?” Mr Meddick said.
“We had to find a way to alleviate pressure on vets and their mental stress, alleviate financial stress on people who want their animals to be seen and the burden wildlife rescuers are placing on vets and vet nurses, so we looked to the health system and Medicare.”
What about the issue of vet shortages?
Vets are leaving the industry in record numbers because of increasing stress and patient load.
The proposed laws would supply extra training and upskilling for vet nurses to become technicians and nurse practitioners.
In human medicine, nurse practitioners and technicians are allowed to do minor surgical procedures and the same principles would apply in the animal healthcare sector to reduce the patient load and burden on vets and enable more animals to be cared for.
Vet nurses would also be able to assess wildlife in a bid to free up time for vets to take on other appointments and improve access and encourage them to stay in the industry.
Last year the Victorian government introduced vet nursing as a free TAFE course to help address the shortage.
Vet Dana Kolosky said since the pandemic the industry had lost a lot of staff.
“It is busier than ever, a huge amount of staff have left and the public has gone out and taken a lot more animals,” Dr Kolosky said.
“We experience a lot of stress and fatigue, it is not the well-paid, easy job that people perceive it to be, we take a lot of stress home and emotional blackmail is a huge issue – people say to us things like ‘if you don’t do this our animal will die’.”
“People look at vet care and think it is very expensive, but they are comparing it to a heavily subsidized human system.”
What happens next?
Today, the Animal Justice Party’s sole MP, Andy Meddick, is introducing the motion into the Victorian Parliament’s Upper House, where the state government does not have a majority.
Mr Meddick said he had some crossbench support and he had been discussing the plan with the government.
“I would like to see it up and running within 12 months, but I can appreciate the government might want to spend more time on this,” Mr Meddick said.
As for the cost?
“I would be lying if I said it was going to be cheap, I would expect it to be over $10 million,” Mr Meddick said.
“But the benefit would far outweigh the costs.”