Web Vet Launches Court Fight With Texas Regulators

Aa state law that bars practitioners from dispensing advice to pet owners without ever examining the animal is being chanllenged by a Texas veterinarian.

Dr. Ronald Hines and the Institute for Justice filed a free-speech lawsuit to defend his right to communicate with people about their pets over the Internet.

A Texas veterinarian is challenging a state law that bars practitioners from dispensing advice to pet owners without ever examining the animal.

Ronald Hines, DVM, Ph.D., began offering free email and telephone veterinary consultations through his website, 2ndchance.info, in 2002. He moved to a pay model in 2003, initially charging $8.95 and then $58 a case, according to his lawsuit, filed April 8 in U.S. District Court in Brownsville.

Dr. Hines, represented by the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, alleges that the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners violated his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process by barring him from remotely advising pet owners in Texas and overseas. He has suspended the online practice.

"This case is much bigger than me,” Hines said. "I’m fighting for the right of all Americans to be able to freely and openly share their thoughts and advice online, and for pet owners to have access to the knowledge they need to best care for the animals they love.”

A spokeswoman for the Texas board declined to comment.

The agency moved against the Cameron County veterinarian in March 2012, 10 years after he launched the website, accusing him of violating the state’s Veterinary Licensing Act by providing advice outside of a formal veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

The American Veterinary Medical Association mandates such a relationship in its Model Veterinary Practice Act. The act was updated in 2003 to bar the practice of veterinary medicine by electronic means.

Hines’ attorneys, Jeff Rowes and Matthew R. Miller, said the Texas board presented no evidence that the website business, which reportedly grossed $2,797 in 2011, harmed any animals, defrauded clients or caused pet owners "to visit conventional brick-and-mortar veterinary practices less often.”

"It shouldn’t be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice,” said Rowes, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice. "Texas is using a 19th-century regulatory model to suppress a 21st-century technology.

"The Supreme Court has recognized that advice is protected speech, and this lawsuit is about ensuring that the Internet can be used to communicate professional advice better, faster and more cheaply than has ever been possible,” he added.

Hines reported that about half of his business over the years came from outside the United States, often from people who could not afford conventional veterinary care or who lived in places far from trusted veterinary services. Some cases involved people who sought a third-party opinion about conflicting diagnoses or people looking for "a sympathetic ear,” court documents revealed.

Among the examples cited in the lawsuit:

  • Scottish AIDS relief workers living in rural Nigeria whose cat "did not have access to a qualified veterinarian.”
  • A disabled New Hampshire dog owner who could not afford conventional veterinary care. Hines put the man in contact with a veterinarian who provided free care.
  • Multiple cases of pet owners whose primary veterinarian prescribed the wrong medication for a diagnosed condition or an incorrect dose.

Hines, 69, is a 1966 graduate of the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine. He worked for 13 years in the U.S. Public Health Service, retiring in 1979 after he was severely injured in a fall. He later operated a handicapped-accessible veterinary clinic for 10 years in San Antonio, worked as a staff veterinarian at Sea World San Antonio and practiced for 10 years in Sarasota, Fla.

Hines populated his early website with articles he authored on the health of cats, dogs, exotic animals and wildlife. More than 200 articles are available for free.

"After launching his website in 2002, Dr. Hines was soon inundated with emails from across the country and around the world seeking his advice about particular animals,” the lawsuit states. "Dr. Hines quickly decided to use his website not only to disseminate his articles to the general public, but also to provide veterinary advice to specific pet owners about their pets.”

His attorneys acknowledged that Hines does not physically examine the animals but said he reviews veterinary records provided to him, requests medical records from the owner’s veterinarian and often urges that a pet he thinks has a serious or life-threatening condition be taken immediately to a veterinary hospital.

The Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners took administrative action against Hines in June 2012 and ultimately fined him $500 and ordered him to retake the state’s jurisprudence exam, which he passed. A probated one-year license suspension, which allows him to keep practicing, expires in March 2014.

What AVMA Thinks

Texas, Mississippi and Utah are the only three states that specifically forbid establishment of a veterinary-client-patient relationship solely through telephone or electronic means, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The organization has a formal policy regarding paid media consulting. It reads:

"The AVMA opposes any form of paid media services, such as but not limited to telephone or Web-based services offered to the public, when the intent is to diagnose and/or treat animals in the absence of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. It is recognized that there are instances where general or specific information needs to be quickly accessed beyond the usual practice setting, such as consultation via phone with poison control centers.”

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