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FAST's Adventures In FOIAland

Part 1 - Since When Did the "V" in VMO Stand for Veterinarian?

Editor's Note - The following article was submitted by a subscriber regarding their experience with the FOIA process and unwillingness of USDA to give requested information.  The article is a first in a series to be submitted describing their experiences.

Many of us in the walking horse world have been confused and frustrated by the lack of verifiable standards used by the USDA when it inspects walking horses. While there’s even a video on the USDA website showing how an inspection using digital palpitation should be done, few of us have ever seen a VMO who uses that methodology.  As to what is a scar indicating a sore horse, well, the less said about the USDA’s “standards,” the better. Then, for the unfortunate few who are chosen by the USDA to have a HPA complaint filed against them, the government’s standards for prosecution are even more opaque. Why should a horse that repeatedly passed inspection at shows both before and after a VMO found it sore have complaints filed against its owner and trainer?  Or filed just against the trainer?

One of FAST’s officers (let’s just refer to him as “FAST”) decided to try and find out why all this inconsistency between the USDA’s actions towards both people and horses. He filed some (fifty or so) FOIA requests with APHIS and a few other parts of the USDA.  He thought that maybe there was a master plan out there with those running the Horse Protection program and that if he asked, someone might share it with him.  Then, he and the rest of us who enjoy training and showing walking horses might satisfy the USDA’s requirements and not live (or ride) in fear of being banned from showing for a year or five for entirely mysterious reasons.

However, FAST, in his Adventures in FOIAland, while so far not having run across any talking rabbits, has entered a world no less amazing than Alice’s Wonderland and no less hard to fathom than the scar rule “standards.”  This has been a long journey and unfortunately will continue for quite a while.  FAST’s first request was received by the USDA more than a year ago.  Although almost all of his FOIA requests were filed more than eleven months ago, he has received less than 10% of the documents that the USDA has identified as being responsive to his requests.  
Enough of an introduction: let’s jump in and see what’s down that hole into FOIAland. FAST wanted to know why the VMOs who enforce the HPA see things so differently from the full time horse doctors.  So, FAST sent in requests to see what the VMOs are doing during their working days other than the few weekends they look at our horses, where they went to veterinary college and similar information, including where they hold their current licenses to practice.

In response his question about where the VMOs are licensed to practice, he was sent this schedule, but without the titles. [Link 1 - VMO licensing response] The helpful FOIA employee (and yes, this young fellow is both unfailingly cheerful and does the best that his supervisors will allow to aid FAST) got those titles on the list right away.  Now comes the fun part: FAST – being the quick study he is – saw this list and wrote,

"I’m confused about … listings for your VMOs who enforce the Horse Protection Act showing the state or other jurisdiction where they are licensed to practice veterinary science is probably due to my ignorance.  I had thought that vets were like docs or lawyers and were licensed by a state, so that the City column wouldn’t be there.  And if there was a city it would be the capital city of the state where they’re licensed?"

The poor lad at FOIA was as confused as was FAST.  First, he took a guess: “[o]ne can deduce that if they are a VMO assigned and working in a particular state, they should be licensed to practice in that state…we don’t have their licenses.”   [Link 2 - Licensing elaboration]  Then, being the sort of helpful government employee that FAST wished he saw more often, the lad did some asking and found the answer to FAST’s question.  The city was where the VMO’s office was located;  the USDA neither knows nor does it care whether its VMOs now or ever had a license to practice veterinary medicine anywhere.  As with scar rule inspections, the ways of the USDA are beyond comprehension, but FAST will share with you HP’s explanation of why the USDA VMOs don’t have to be real veterinarians. Maybe it will even make sense to you.  The FOIA lad got in contact with the folks at HP and received the following incomprehensible and legally inaccurate explanation:

“[A] federal Veterinary Medical Officer is not required to have a state license to conduct their duties assigned in the federal government.  They are exempt from the requirement to hold a state license for each state they work in.  The requirements leveraged (what does this piece of burocratese mean?) to obtain a state license are not the same requirements to complete their duties in the federal government especially for enforcing the Horse Protection Act.  The VMOs are trained annually face to face (whose face are they talking about; let’s hope it’s a horse’s) for 40 hours prior to horse protection inspections being conducted for the year as well as they receive continuing education of conferences, symposiums, webinars and conference calls throughout the year.”  I have attached the document from the AAVSB that shows the exemption – pg. 13.

The AAVSB is a model (a suggested “ideal’) law, which means it is not the law in any state in the country.  However, to be fair, some states do provide similar exemptions for VMOs.  From a quick look at some state veterinary licensing websites, FAST came to the conclusion that maybe half the VMOs had licenses to practice somewhere.  

FAST will have something to share with you from his visits to FOIAland every issue or two for quite a while.  Next time you see “Doctor” Rachel Cezar, you might ask her where she’s licensed to practice as a veterinarian.  

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