Veterinarian Loses, but Fights the Good Fight


HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas veterinarian whose license was suspended because he gave free advice on the Internet could not persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to review his challenge of the telemedicine ban.
     Ronald Hines sued Texas in April 2013 , claiming its rule barring veterinarians from giving advice to pet owners online without examining the animals violates the First Amendment. Hines sued the state a few weeks after the Texas veterinary board suspended his license.
     The Supreme Court’s Monday decision not to hear the case ended it.
     Hines, 72, said in an email Monday night that the law he challenged has “nothing to do with the welfare or well-being of sick animals.”
     “It is strictly about protecting the income of storefront veterinarians. Of course there are pet health issues that do not lend themselves to online assistance. But for the Texas Board to state, as they have, that I cannot venture an opinion on any health issue regarding any specific animal anywhere in the world is strictly self-serving greed,” Hines told Courthouse News.
     Hines argued in his lawsuit that the law is unfair to sick animals and their desperate owners. He said in his Monday night email that more than half of his clients lived in parts of the world that do not have well-trained veterinarians.
     Hines launched his website, www.2ndchance.info, in 2003 after he retired. He posted articles about pet health and health care, and says he was flooded with emails from pet owners around the world seeking advice about particular animals.
     Hines added a PayPal button to his website in 2003 so he could charge a flat fee of $8.95 for advice. In September 2011 he raised the fee to $58. But Hines said he waived the fees sometimes because he wanted to help animals whether or not their owner could pay.
     For 10 years, the site stayed under the radar and earned Hines some pocket change. He says he earned $2,797.24 from it in 2011. Then Texas regulators caught wind, ordered him to stop practicing online, fined him $500 and suspended his license for a year.
     Hines sued the nine members of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners in Federal Court, where a judge found he may have a First Amendment claim.
     Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, which ruled that the law has nothing to do with free speech.
     “The challenged state law prohibits the practice of veterinary medicine unless the veterinarian has first physically examined either the animal in question or its surrounding premises,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote for the court in March this year.
     “It does not regulate the content of any speech, require veterinarians to deliver any particular message or restrict what can be said once a veterinary-client-patient relationship is established.”
     As is customary, the Supreme Court did not explain its decision to reject certiorari on Monday. Despite the rejection, Hines was upbeat.
     “Even though we lost in court, this case has generated a lot of attention for this issue,” Hines said in a statement through the Institute for Justice, the Virginia firm that represented him. “Telemedicine is inevitable. Change is inevitable. 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.”
     Hines said in the email that a similar case that might wind up on the Supreme Court docket involves the Dallas company Teladoc, whose board-certified doctors “can resolve many of your medical issues, 24/7/365, via phone or online video consults from wherever you happen to be,” according to its website.
     Teladoc sued the Texas Medical Board on Jan. 20 in Travis County Court, claiming the board declared a questionable “emergency” to stop doctors from prescribing drugs without meeting patients in person.
     Hines can take solace that not all branches of Texas government oppose his dispensing free advice on the Internet.
     “Most of my time is spent caring for injured wildlife. I am the only state and federally licensed veterinarian south of Corpus Christi doing so,” Hines wrote to Courthouse News. “In fact, my email address and phone number are displayed on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website and given out freely to answer phone and email inquiries regarding wildlife health. So one branch of Texas government encourages me to give advice online and by phone while the other fines me for doing it.”
     He said he hopes that news about his case will force the American Veterinary Medical Association to modify its model state veterinary law, which requires vets to examine the animal in the flesh before providing medical care.
     The association’s Model Veterinary Practice Act states: “No person may practice veterinary medicine in the State except within the context of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. A veterinarian-client-patient relationship cannot be established solely by telephonic or other electronic means.”
     The AVMA says the rules are meant to guide states on how to craft legislation governing veterinarians. Hines says they need to be changed.
     “If the AVMA finally drags itself into the 21st century, that will be reward enough to me for having fought this fight,” Hines wrote.