Board will consider issue July 12

Oregon veterinarians may have to undergo criminal background checks under a proposal that a state regulatory board will consider this month.

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Board will meet at 9 a.m. July 12 at the Cascade campus of Portland Community College.

The board's executive director says the move was not precipitated by a surge in complaints against veterinarians. A state audit of all 17 health-related licensing boards, released in March, noted that it was one of just three boards that did not require such checks.

"Veterinarians have prescribing powers and access to medications that are at risk for misuse," says the audit conducted by the secretary of state. "We recommend boards give further consideration to background check policies for professionals who handle drugs or interact with vulnerable populations."

The other boards not requiring such checks are Occupational Therapy, and Speech Pathology and Audiology.

In 2012, the veterinary board issued 248 new licenses and renewed 3,217. As of the end of 2013, the agency had 3,365 licensees.

The agency's current two-year budget is $701,629, which comes entirely from license fees. It gets no money from the tax-supported general fund. It employs three people.

In scope, budget and staffing, it is dwarfed by the state boards that license nurses, pharmacists and doctors.

Executive director Lori Makinen says the veterinary board has reviewed the issue before, but concluded that background checks would not turn up information about animal abuse or substance abuse by applicants.

"The kind of information in a criminal background check that would be of importance to this board would not be relevant to other licensed professionals who deal with humans," she says.

She says substance abuse of the type that state veterinary officials would want to know about comes from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration or from pharmacists.

The audit reported that the veterinary board opened 14 cases in 2012, far fewer than the totals for the nursing, medical and pharmacy boards.

A legislative committee is writing some bills for consideration by lawmakers next year to set standards for how agencies conduct background checks. One bill would allow agencies to share such information so that applicants do not have to undergo multiple but duplicate checks.

Makinen says she had planned to await the outcome of the 2015 session before proceeding, but the audit prodded action sooner.

Makinen says she planned to present options to the board, but hasn't laid them out yet.

"My guess is that the board will decide to implement background checks in some form," she says.

"The cost factor is going to be considerable. Our mission is to protect the public, but we also have to consider the licensees and what the effect is going to be on them."

The most common type of background check is tied to fingerprint files maintained by the FBI and conducted through the Oregon State Police. It covers criminal activity in other states. A more limited Oregon-only check is available.

But Makinen says a similar proposal before the Board of Naturopathic Medicine is projected to add $50 to the cost for license applicants.

Glenn Kolb, executive director of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, says he would attend the July 12 meeting.

"We are just waiting to see what is going to be discussed," he says. "If something is going to be proposed, we will have something more tangible to look at and consider at that time."

Action by the board on July 12 would itself not impose a background-check requirement. The board would begin a formal process, including public comment, for a change in state administrative rules.

A 2013 law gave agencies broad authority through rule-making to require criminal background checks. It followed up the work of a task force in 2011 and 2012 to set up a uniform system for agencies to proceed.

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