A retired Texas veterinarian has filed a federal lawsuit challenging state regulations that bar him from evaluating animals and giving veterinary advice over the Internet.
Since 2002, Ronald Hines, 69, of Brownsville, Tex., has used his website to provide veterinary advice — sometimes for free and sometimes for a flat $58 fee. Sometimes his clients are overseas with limited access to veterinary services. He gets lots of questions from people who find wounded birds and want to nurse them to health. Over the course of his career, he developed an expertise with monkeys, and said he still gets a lot of monkey questions.
"Lots of diabetic monkeys. For some reason, people feed them all sorts of horrible things, like sticky buns," Hines said in a phone interview.
Last month, the Texas veterinary board suspended Hines' license for a year after finding that his Internet practice violates state laws. Texas regulations require a vet to establish a "veterinarian-client-patient relationship," and they explicitly state that such a relationship cannot be established solely through the telephone or Internet.
Hines' lawyers at the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice say the rule infringes on their client's free-speech rights and is an unreasonable restriction on the profession.
Jeff Rowes, an attorney with the institute, said the case could set a precedent in fields that extend well beyond veterinary medicine. He noted that telemedicine continues to be an emerging field and that regulations restricting Internet speech could affect a number of professions, including law, psychology and investment advice.
"It is fundamentally a challenge to an obsolete approach to regulating professions," he said of the lawsuit.
Rowes acknowledged that a veterinarian's free-speech rights are not absolute when it comes to professional licensing. A vet who dispenses incorrect or dangerous advice would clearly be subject to sanction, he said. But a blanket rule that bars giving advice over the Internet cannot be justified, he said.
"It should not be illegal for veterinarians to give veterinary advice," Rowes wrote in the opening line of the lawsuit, filed late Monday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Nicole Oria, executive director of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said state law is clear in barring Hines' method of practice.
She said the board has no problem with Hines writing general articles on veterinary care, but that he crosses the line when he gives specific medical advice to customers about a specific animal. She also said the suspension of Hines' license was probated, meaning he can continue to practice while on a probationary status.
Hines, who gave consultations through his website www.2ndchance.info, said he typically has a potential client send him all available medical records, including notes and X-rays. He earned less than $3,000 a year through the site. If he can't provide any useful advice without conducting an examination, he says so and refunds any fees.
Often, though, he said his style of practice allows him to conduct research and think about a case in ways that would be impossible if he were running a traditional practice.
"I'm dealing with the science, not barking dogs, biting dogs," he said. "I can just sit and think. I can do research."
Rowes said Texas adopted the rules barring online veterinary practice in 2005, basing the rule on model regulations proposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Despite the AVMA's recommendations, Rowes said most states have not adopted similar restrictions, which he believes are a form of protectionism.
"Texas is trying to drive pet owners to brick-and-mortar veterinary practices in order to protect them" from competition, Rowes said.
The AVMA's president, Douglas Aspros, a practicing vet in White Plains, N.Y., said he believes most states have indeed adopted the rules as recommended by AVMA, though not necessarily in the exact words used by Texas.
"The rules are not there to protect the vet," he said. "They're there to protect the patient."
At some point in the future, Aspros said, technology may advance so a vet could do an adequate evaluation without seeing the animal in person.
"Having a license isn't a right. It's a grant from society," he said.
The Institute for Justice has had a number of successful suits challenging what they view as unreasonable regulations on professions and small businesses.
In 2005, it successfully represented a northern Virginia vintner before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging state laws that barred her from shipping wine directly to out-of-state customers. Last month, a federal appeals court sided with a group of monks represented by the institute who challenged a Louisiana law that allowed only funeral directors to sell caskets. And earlier this year, the institute won a federal court ruling against the IRS, which is now barred from implementing new regulations that would have required hundreds of thousands of tax preparers to undergo competency exams.
The latest lawsuit seeks an injunction that would lift the penalties imposed against Hines by the veterinary board.