Internet pharmacy showdown at NAVC

Negative advertising, not competition, is the chief complaint of veterinarians who faced off against Internet pharmacy Pet Med Express at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) in Orlando, Fla.

NAVC hosted a panel Jan. 15, 2012 during which Pet Med Express representatives listened to feedback from veterinarians on the topic of Internet pharmacies.

Months of controversy

Pet Med Express, also known as 1-800-Pet-Meds, approached NAVC in September and asked to become an exhibitor and sponsor of the conference.

Doralee Donaldson, DVM, a practitioner in Alabama, initiated a petition to protest the Internet pharmacy’s presence at the conference. Within a couple of days, the petition had approximately 200 names. In the petition, Donaldson and her supporters asked that Pet Med Express leave the conference, referring to its "illegal and unethical practices", and referring to it as an "unscrupulous company".

After NAVC approached the company with the petition and the complaints from veterinarians, Pet Med Express decided to voluntarily withdraw from the conference. It agreed, however to attend a panel hosted by NAVC in an effort to listen to complaints from veterinarians and improve relationships with the veterinary industry.

Donaldson, a panel member during the discussion, accused Pet Med Express of having an ulterior motive for coming to the conference. Donaldson said she suspected it was because of recent stock troubles in the face of growing competition from retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.

Bonnie Levengood, director of marketing for Pet Med Express said her company wanted to come to the forum to get direct feedback from the veterinary community.

"We’re really here to hear what you have to say, and to hear your thoughts," Levengood said.

Levengood said Pet Med Express wants to improve its relationship with veterinarians, and that listening to them is an important first step in doing that. Levengood said her company works hard to refer customers back to their veterinarians, in turn driving clinic visits and encouraging annual veterinary exams.

"It’s time we have a better relationship," Levengood said. "The reality is if we can make life better for one another, let’s do it."

Levengood said claims that Pet Med Express dispenses medications without a prescription from a veterinarian are false, and are largely due to problems with copy cat companies online. When Pet Med Express refuses customers who try to get medications without veterinarian approval, Levengood says they often go to online copy cat websites and trademark infringers.

"We do our best to stop what’s going on with buying over the Internet without vet authorization," Levengood said.

Levengood says Pet Med Express works to proactively notify state boards of pharmacy when it is aware of illegal purchasing over the Internet.

"We’ve done everything in our capacity to ensure that we’re doing everything right," Levengood said.

Pet Med Express Director of Pharmacy Services Gary Koesten, a licensed pharmacist, said he works hard to ensure 100 percent compliancy with his team of 10 pharmacists.

"I’m not going to put the licenses of the business in jeopardy," Koesten said.


Veterinarians said it is their frustration with the negative ads from Pet Med Express, rather than the market competition, that makes them dislike the Internet pharmacy.

Panel member Ernie Ward, DVM, acknowledged that Internet pharmacies are necessary, especially because they can offer drugs that he may not want to carry on a regular basis. The issue he has with Pet Med Express, he said, is its negative advertising.

"Your ads stink," Ward said. "They don’t portray vets in a positive light. They portray consumers getting ripped off."

Levengood said a key component of Pet Med Express’s advertising is the emphasis on consumer savings. For many pet owners, she says, they wouldn’t buy the medications their pets need at all, or would even have their pet put to sleep because of the high cost of pet medications.

"The reality is a lot of owners can’t afford their pet medications," Levengood said. "For that reason, savings is a core part of our advertising, and will remain a part of our ads."

Koesten agreed, reiterating the fact that in a capitalistic economy, businesses must cater to the needs of the consumer.

"At the end of the day, this is a consumer-driven industry," Koesten said. "At the end of the day, the consumer wants convenience and choice."

Ward said he doesn’t mind the competition from Pet Med Express, saying that his prices are competitive with those of the Internet pharmacy. However, the consumer advertising, he says, attacks veterinarians too strongly.

"What I don’t like is when you say I’m a bad guy," Ward said. "The ads are a negative slam."

Donaldson agreed that the competition isn’t the point of contention.

"I don’t think it’s about the competition at all," she said, noting that her biggest competition comes from the vet clinics down the road from her hospital.

Pledges for improvement

Veterinarians said the first thing Pet Med Express can do to improve its relations with veterinarians is to change the nature of its advertising.

"There’s a difference between ads that are legally allowed and ads that are bad taste," Ward said. "Do something about the ads – just start there."

Panel moderator and former NAVC president Doug Mader, DVM, suggested Pet Med Express set up focus groups comprised of veterinarians to review ads and provide feedback.

Other panel members suggested the company form a veterinary advisory board of veterinarians to oversee the company’s practices instead of relying on human pharmacists.

One audience member suggested the company put informational videos on its site, which reaches 1.5 to 2 million unique visitors per month.

Though the company recently underwent a management change in 2000, veterinarians demanded more be done to own up to past mistakes and increase accountability.

Koesten said while he acknowledges mistakes were made in the past, the current management cannot continue to be held accountable.

"I think we’ve made some tremendous strikes over the last 10 to 11 years," Koesten said. "Please stop holding us accountable for mistakes made 10, 11, 12 years ago. See us for how we really are, not as how you think we might be."

Some veterinarians however, are not convinced of the company’s pledges to change.

"They made a conscious choice to alienate vets from day one," Donaldson said. "A snake is a snake, no matter how many times it sheds its skin."

New enemies on the horizon

Though veterinarians remain disgruntled with Pet Med Express, Ward warns that bigger problems lie in wait down the road.

"This is not the enemy," Ward said. "The enemy is Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, CVS pharmacy. Mark my words people, come back five years later and you might not even remember the name of this company. Wal-Mart is coming to town."

Retailers like Wal-Mart and Target are starting to offer generic medications that consumers can easily get for their pets at a low cost. This, Ward says, is the real danger to veterinarians.

"There are a lot bigger fish our there that are going to gobble us up," Ward said.