As vets’ legal recourse ends with a suspended license, access to pet medications could expand — or even disappear

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Veterinarian Dr. Howard Covant, seen here at his Richmond Hill clinic on May 29, will have his license temporarily revoked after losing the lawsuit following a complaint against him for stocking pharmacies.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

June is usually a busy time at Bayview Seven Animal Hospital in Richmond Hill, Ont.

But this year the clinic will be partially closed for a month because its owner, veterinarian Howard Covant, has had his license suspended after 38 years of practice.

The crime? Helping a pharmacist store pet medications.

The suspension is the culmination of a years-long legal saga for Dr. Covant, a key figure in Ontario who advocated for pet owners to be able to fill prescriptions for veterinary drugs at pharmacies.

That fight is reaching a tipping point after the Ontario legislature passed a law reforming the oversight of veterinary medicine. This law could open the door for more pharmacists to dispense pet medications – or close the door.

Pharmacists in Canada are allowed to dispense medicines for animals, and some – including major players like Walmart – will do so for medicines that are chemically identical to human medicines, although these services are generally not advertised.

Pet medicines dispensed at pharmacies are often sold at lower prices because pharmacists typically charge smaller surcharges than veterinarians.

The difficulty for pharmacists in Canada is obtaining the necessary medications. Pharmaceutical companies and distributors have long signed agreements limiting the distribution of animal-specific medications to veterinarians, although many of these medications are available in pharmacies in other countries, including the United States.

Wendy Chui, owner of Pets Drug Mart and one of the few pharmacists in Canada specializing in veterinary drugs, has historically been unable to stock her pharmacy by ordering directly from drug distributors. Instead, she relied on veterinarians, like Dr. Covant, to order supplies for her.

This was allowed under regulations from the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, which stated that a veterinarian could resell medications to other veterinarians or pharmacists. In 2015 – a few years after Ms Chui started her pet pharmacy – the council changed the wording of the ordinance to say resale could only take place in limited quantities to cover temporary shortages.

Not long after, a Bayer employee filed a complaint with the college that Dr. Covant had violated the ordinance. In 2020, a disciplinary committee ruled against Dr. Covant in a 2-1 ruling, with the dissent saying the resale did not pose a risk to public safety.

Dr. Covant appealed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and then to the Ontario Court of Appeal, but lost each time. Judges ruled that they found no error in the committee’s decision that Dr. Covant had violated the ordinance.

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“Pet owners have lost the right to shop and compare prices for medications prescribed to their pets,” says Dr. Covant.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

He then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which announced on May 2 that it was declining to hear his case. Dr. Covant now faces a one-month license suspension, must take an ethics course and pay the college $94,235. In addition to his own legal fees, he says, he estimates he will ultimately lose a quarter of a million dollars.

Dr. Covant said his goal has always been to give pet owners more choices so they can help manage the rising costs of pet care.

“Pet owners have lost the right to shop and compare prices for medications prescribed to their pets,” he said.

Jan Robinson, the veterinary college’s registrar, said he was pleased the courts upheld the disciplinary order.

“This reflects the council’s position that veterinarians are authorized to prescribe and dispense medicines to an individual animal or groups of animals, but are not wholesalers of medicines to other practitioners,” she said in a statement.

Over the past few months, while Dr. As Covant waited for its lawsuit to end, Ms. Chui looked for another way to supply her pharmacy. Last year, she filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau, alleging that drug manufacturers and distributors were suppressing competition and artificially raising prices by restricting pharmacies’ access to the drugs.

She then began a renewed and sustained letter campaign to the executives of Canada’s top veterinary drug manufacturers asking them to allow her pharmacy to order from them. One by one, starting with generic drug manufacturer Apotex, they agreed. With these letters of support in hand, she was able to open an account with the only national distributor of pet medications, Quebec-based CDMV Inc., to order many of the products she needed.

“I can confirm that Ms. Chui is a client of CDMV,” President Serge Varin wrote in an email to The Globe and Mail last week. He added that she can obtain products as long as it is done in accordance with Health Canada regulations, the rules of professional veterinary bodies and the distribution contracts CDMV has signed with manufacturers.

(The only Ontario-based distributor, Veterinary Purchasing Co. Ltd., is a veterinarian-owned cooperative that sells only to veterinarians.)

These deals she has made with manufacturers represent a major win for Ms. Chui, as she has always strived to be able to order directly from drug makers and distributors, just as she does for her human pharmacy. But it is a step forward that, she fears, is weak because of other legal and regulatory changes coming from Queen’s Park.

Last week, the Ontario Legislature passed Bill 171, the Enhancing Professional Care for Animals Act. The legislation reforms the way healthcare professionals are monitored in the province, bringing veterinary technicians under university supervision and including roles for pharmacists and animal chiropractors.

Ontario Agriculture Minister Lisa Thompson said during legislative debates that pharmacists “could prepare, dispense and sell medications for which an animal owner has a prescription.”

She continues: “Just like visiting the ophthalmologist, you have the choice of whether you buy glasses through them or whether you take your prescription with you to another store. That’s the perfect analogy that speaks to what we’re making possible here. It’s about access to care and choice.”

Sam McCormick, a spokesman for Ms. Thompson, confirmed to the Globe that veterinarians are required to provide a prescription that can be taken elsewhere if a patient requests it. “Failure to do so may be considered professional misconduct,” he said in an email.

But the exact rules that apply to pharmacists are not included in the bill. Instead, they will be written through regulations after the bill receives royal assent in the coming weeks.

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Dr. Covant says that while he will no longer supply pharmacies, he is encouraged to hear about the progress being made in broadening access to pet medications.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ms Chui said she was “alarmed” that the bill did not define pharmacists’ rights to access and dispense medicines. She is concerned that while the legislation contemplates a role for pharmacists, the regulations could ultimately limit what they can do.

The veterinary college — which will be renamed the College of Veterinary Professionals of Ontario — said it will conduct public consultations as it drafts the regulations. “The council supports the ability of pharmacists to dispense, compound and sell medicines to animal owners,” Ms Robinson, the registrar, said in a statement.

The Ontario College of Pharmacists said it will consult with the veterinary college on the new rules.

Rich Verman, co-owner of The Pet Pharmacist in Concord, Ont. – one of the few other pet pharmacies in Canada – shared Ms. Chui’s wariness that writing too much in favor of veterinarians will not improve access to medicines.

Mr Verman – who does not reveal which vets help stock his pharmacy – said the legality of pharmacists dispensing medicine for animals has never been the real issue.

“The challenge is what it has always been, and that is the offering,” he said.

About Dr. Covant said he has accepted the penalties he faces and will no longer supply pharmacies. But he was encouraged to hear about the progress being made in broadening access to pet medications, and he hopes that progress will continue.

“I’ve reached the end of my road,” he said. “There’s nothing else to do, except maybe create some public awareness – if it’s still a problem.”

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