Retired veterinarian challenges Internet restrictions

By Matthew Barakat
Associated Press

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — 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.

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.