Internet Vet Loses Court Fight

Despite the rejection of his online consulting, the legal challenge was worthwhile, Dr. Ronald Hines says.

Dr. Ronald Hines estimated that he helped more than 700 pet owners through his website, nearly all of them outside Texas.

Institute for Justice

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Texas veterinarian Ronald Hines, DVM, today declared partial victory after the U.S. Supreme Court permanently silenced his online practice.

“I’m just elated,” the 72-year-old practitioner said of his success in shining a light on the issues of free speech and telemedicine.

“I think it’s great for veterinarians and I think it’s great for pets.”

The Supreme Court refused to hear Dr. Hines’ appeal of a lower court ruling that found telephone and Internet communication to be insufficient when establishing the required veterinarian-client-patient relationship in Texas. The State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in 2013 ordered Hines to shutter his small online business and placed him on a year’s probation.

Hines argued that he never diagnosed or treated pets remotely but merely offered advice for a fee.

As more pet owners and veterinarians connect with each other through websites and smartphone apps, the question of when such contact crosses the line is bound to be raised again, Hines said.

“Look at what’s around us now versus what was around us two years ago,” he said of a growing number of outlets such as the new Vet24seven app, which offers fee-based texting and video chatting with veterinarians.

“You just can’t keep ignoring the Internet,” Hines said. “Things are going to change whether we want it or not, and we might as well be in front, not pulling up the rear.”

Hines had harsh words for the American Veterinary Medical Association, saying the organization should “get off their ass” and support modern methods of communication.

AVMA’s Model Veterinary Practice Act urges face-to-face veterinary relationships.

“It is reasonable to conclude that the quality of care will be higher, and the risk of misdiagnosis and improper treatment lower, if the veterinarian physically examines the animal in question before treating it,” AVMA’s assistant director of state relations, Adrian Hochstadt, JD, wrote as Hines’ case wound through the courts.

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The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice, which represented Hines, called his legal defeat “a serious setback for the speech of ordinary Americans” but predicted that similar challenges will emerge.

“The First Amendment status of occupational speech has profound implications for veterinarians, doctors, psychologists and others across the country,” said one of his attorneys, Jeff Rowes. “Particularly with the explosive growth of telemedicine, the Supreme Court must eventually address whether occupational speech is protected by the First Amendment.”

Matt Miller, managing attorney in the Institute for Justice’s Texas office, said laws like those in Texas “prevent millions of professionals from sharing valuable information with consumers who need to hear what they have to say.”

“Ron Hines is a licensed veterinarian,” Miller said. “He is certainly qualified to talk to people about animals. This law only does one thing: protect brick-and-mortar veterinarians from telemedicine.”

The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners declined to comment on the dismissal of Hines’ lawsuit.

Regulators are fighting a losing battle, Hines said.

“Change is inevitable,” he said. “People are going to be using the Internet to discuss their pets, lives, health and other important subjects. Ultimately, legislatures aren’t going to be able to stop it.”

The Brownsville, Texas, practitioner isn’t ready to abandon veterinary medicine. He heals sick and injured wildlife for the state—“they bring me everything from bobcats to blue jays”—and he reaches out to pet owners through health care articles posted on his website, www.2ndchance.info.

“I don’t think the board can stop me from doing that,” he said.

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