Texas vet fights in-person exam requirement, again

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A veterinarian in Texas is challenging, for the second time, state rules against giving medical advice without first performing an in-person examination.

Dr. Ronald S. Hines gave pet owners medical advice by phone, video call, and email until 2012. The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners told him that was illegal because the state requires a physical examination of patients, and he sued in 2013.

Appellate court justices ruled against Dr. Hines in 2015, finding that the board has authority to regulate his advice to pet owners as professional conduct, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. In October 2018, he filed a second complaint, arguing that a June 2018 Supreme Court ruling in a separate case will change the outcome for him.

Gavel on a desk

In National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, a five-justice majority ruled in favor of anti-abortion organizations that challenged a California law that required disclosures to women who came to their pregnancy services clinics. The majority ruled that the law was unduly burdensome in requiring that clinic staff tell women about free or low-cost state services, including abortions, and notify women if the clinics lack licensing to provide medical services.

Andrew Ward, one of Dr. Hines' attorneys through the Institute for Justice, said appellate courts ruled before that professional speech was subject to different rules than most other speech, but he said the Supreme Court ruling indicates speech by professionals retains constitutional protections. He argues that Texas lacks sufficient reason to prohibit Dr. Hines' speech related to medical advice.

Citing current technology, research, and state and federal regulations, the AVMA advises that veterinary telemedicine—medicine conducted at a distance—should follow an in-person examination to establish a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, with the exception of emergencies.

Michelle Griffin, general counsel for the TBVME, said she and others with the board could not comment on the pending litigation.

In his complaint filed in the Southern District of Texas, Dr. Hines says he wrote about 400 articles about pet health and care and published them on his website. Pet owners sought his help, and he asked for medical records or referred people to veterinarians when records were unavailable.

The complaint also describes consultations for people who wanted second opinions, were unable to find local veterinarians, or needed help finding inexpensive care.

Dr. Hines said he expects no personal benefits from the lawsuit. He is 75 years old, with limited mobility from a spinal injury endured 40 years ago, he said.

But younger veterinarians could offer excellent remote services, he said.

Related JAVMA content:

Supreme Court declines review of examination requirement (Feb. 1, 2016)