Veterinarian loses free speech case involving web consultations

By Edgar Walters
The Texas Tribune
Originally published Nov. 30, 2015

A Texas veterinarian who offered pet-care advice online lost a battle against state regulators on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case.

Ron Hines, a retired veterinarian from Brownsville, argued that a state regulation requiring him to physically examine an animal before practicing telemedicine — which involves offering a professional consultation over the phone or Internet — violated his free-speech rights.

But the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled earlier that Hines broke Texas law when he answered pet owners’ questions through an “Ask a Vet” link on his website. The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners suspended his license. The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Hines’ appeal means the lower court’s ruling will stand.

“Even though we lost in court, this case has generated a lot of attention for this issue,” Hines said in a prepared statement, calling telemedicine “inevitable.”

“Ultimately, legislatures aren’t going to be able to stop it,” he said.
Loris Jones, a spokeswoman for the veterinary board, declined to comment on the case.

Hines was represented by attorneys from the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public-interest legal group that has challenged laws restricting the practice of telemedicine.

A growing industry that has rapidly evolved with new technology, telemedicine is a legally contested issue in Texas — and not just among veterinarians.

Teladoc, a Dallas-based company that offers humans remote doctor appointments, is in federal court over the state’s regulations of its business model. Earlier this year, the Texas Medical Board adopted a new rule that would prevent doctors from making a diagnosis or prescribing medicine unless another medical professional is physically present to examine the patient.

Teladoc is challenging that rule as anti-competitive, arguing that the medical board, composed mostly of physicians, is unfairly stifling competition. That lawsuit is pending.

The veterinary medicine case was larger in scope, experts said, because Hines only offered advice and did not use the online service to prescribe medicine.