Supreme Court declines to review case on legality of online veterinary services

In 2013, the Texas state veterinary board suspended the license of Ronald Hines, a veterinarian who had been offering services to pet owners over the Internet since 2002. The board argued that it's illegal for veterinarians to provide care to animals they have not seen in person. Hines argued that the board was violating his First Amendment rights by trying to control how he communicates with clients--and he went all the way to the Supreme Court in a battle to regain his right to offer Web-based veterinary services.

On November 30, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to Hines--and quite possibly to a herd of entrepreneurs that have launched apps in the last few months offering remote veterinary services to pet owners. The court declined to review Hines' challenge to the Texas law, in essence upholding the decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which supported the Texas veterinary board's license suspension.

The law in question pertains to what's known as the Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR), which stipulates that relationships between vets and their clients must be established in person, not solely by electronic means or by telephone. Many other states also have VCPR restrictions in place.

"These kinds of laws prevent millions of professionals from sharing valuable information with consumers who need to hear what they have to say," said Matt Miller, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice in Texas, in a press release. The Institute led the effort to bring Hines' case to the Supreme Court. "Ron Hines is a licensed veterinarian. He is certainly qualified to talk to people about animals. This law only does one thing: protect brick-and-mortar veterinarians from telemedicine."

Miller told Reuters that there were never any allegations that Hines harmed animals by providing advice online. He added that only 5% of the people Hines advised were from Texas, and that many of his clients were in developing countries that lack easy access to veterinary care.

Hines is far from the only person seeking to offer remote veterinary services. Earlier this year, brothers Curt and Mason Revelette launched Vet on Demand, an app that offers pet owners access to veterinarians in 16 states. Vet24Seven, founded by veterinarians in California, offers a similar service. And in late November, another California company raised $1.5 million to develop Kuddly, an app that provides remote veterinary visits, along with opportunities for participating vets to earn "reputation points" based on how pet owners rate their interactions with them.

The Institute of Justice's Miller predicts that there will be more challenges to the VCPR and other restrictions that may prevent veterinarians from embracing mobile and Internet capabilities to expand their practices. "This case is over, but there will be a next case," Miller told Reuters. "There will be future veterinarians, doctors, other professionals who will be facing these types of protectionist restrictions."

- read more at Reuters
- access the Institute for Justice press release here

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