Texas verdict could endanger Internet veterinary-advice services

Ron Hines

Texas veterinarian Ronald Hines has been offering advice to pet owners via the Internet since 2002, but in 2013, the state veterinary board suspended his license on the grounds that its illegal for vets to give advice about pets they have not physically examined. He sued, and the case made it to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the state's suspension.

Now Hines is taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm in Virginia, which is representing him. The organization argues that preventing a veterinarian from offering advice remotely is a violation of the First Amendment.

"Dr. Hines gives advice for a living, and advice is speech protected by the First Amendment," said Jeff Rowes, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, in a press release. "This case is ripe for review because the federal courts of appeal across the country disagree about the extent to which the First Amendment protects the speech of licensed professionals when they give individually tailored advice."

Hines had his license suspended for a year and was fined $500 by the state board, which also made him retake the law portion of the licensing exam. The appeals court ruled that he was, indeed, in violation because the Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR) cannot be established solely by electronic means or by telephone.

The VCPR mandate exists in most states, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. That means the outcome of Hines' case could have implications for veterinary practices across the country, not to mention entrepreneurs seeking to develop animal-health websites or apps.

Pet-care apps have proliferated in recent months. DoggyDoc, for example, lets pet owners input symptoms they're observing and get advice from veterinarians, while Itchology allows people who own dogs with allergic dermatitis to record symptoms and share them with their vets. Even insurance giant UnitedHealth ($UNH) has gotten in on the action, launching SnapVet, an app veterinarians can use to provide remote consultations.

No doubt vet-app developers and veterinarians alike will be watching Hines' case closely. He's expected to file his petition for review by the Supreme Court this June.

- here's the Institute for Justice's release
- read more at the American Animal Hospital Association blog