On February 11, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas denied the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners’ motion in Hines v. Alldredge to dismiss veterinarian Ron Hines’ challenge to a Texas law banning online veterinary advice. The board had suspended Dr. Hines’ license for providing veterinary medical advice over the phone and internet for a fee without having a valid veterinarian-client-patient-relationship (VCPR). Dr. Hines had claimed that he did not attempt to serve as a primary veterinary care provider, did not prescribe medications and did not perform any procedures, but only provided advice to pet owners without access to conventional veterinary care, whether because of geography or inability to pay, and those who received conflicting diagnoses.
Judge Hilda Tagle’s decision dismissed Dr. Hines’ due process and equal protection claims, but allowed his First Amendment claim to proceed in the lawsuit, finding that “the First Amendment applies to the professional regulations at issue in this case, and that the regulations, as applied to Hines’s professional speech, are subject to heightened scrutiny and must be shown to be “reasonable” (as opposed to merely “rational”). Therefore, it seems that the Texas licensing board will need to prove to the court that the VCPR regulations are “reasonable” under First Amendment analysis. Dr. Hines argues that veterinary advice is protected speech, not professional conduct subject to state regulation, and that veterinarians are capable of exercising professional judgment without examining an animal.
If the court ultimately finds that the regulations violate Dr. Hines’ First Amendment rights, the Texas licensing board may be required to substantially revise the definition of a VCPR to allow for veterinary advice provided by electronic means. It’s not clear at this time if the Texas board plans to appeal the decision. For now, it’s only one decision by one district court, but if not reversed, will it embolden other veterinarians to offer similar services on the internet? What do you think about the decision and what it could mean?