After veterinary case rejected, questions remain

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Ron Hines’ case on Monday.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Ron Hines’ case on Monday. AP

Texas leaders like to talk about their distaste for unnecessary government regulations that pick winners and losers.

But in a case of a Brownsville veterinarian, it’s the Lone Star State that is over regulating the marketplace.

Unfortunately, Dr. Ron Hines has lost the opportunity for his high court challenge to what he believes is an overly restrictive law regulating the practice of veterinary telemedicine.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Hines’ case on Monday.

That’s too bad. The 72-year-old’s long-standing legal battle related to his dispensation of animal-related medical advice via an “Ask a Vet” link on his website, but has significant implications for the future of telemedicine as well as free speech.

Hines, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, began his telemedicine work in 2002, offering veterinary advice, sometimes for free and sometimes for a nominal fee, by computer. Many of Hines’ clients were out of state; some were even overseas with limited access to veterinary services. And Hines did not perform procedures, dispense or prescribe medication online; he stipulated on his website that his advice should not replace appropriate care by a local vet.

But thanks to a 2005 law, Hines was fined and his license suspended by the state veterinary board, which had never received a complaint about him.

According to state law, veterinarians must establish a “veterinarian-client-patient relationship” before providing medical advice and such a relationship cannot be established solely through the telephone or Internet.

According to the law’s supporters, it was designed to protect patients and modeled after the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommendations.

But according to Hines and the Institute for Justice, which represented him in his challenge, the law inhibits competition and innovation and restricts Hines’ speech.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Texas law, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case ensures that it will stand — at least for the time being.

A similar challenge to Texas telemedicine restrictions by Dallas-based Teladoc — this one involving medical advice to humans — is working its way through federal court.

Given Texas’ doctor shortage, telemedicine seems like a practical way to expand care, especially to communities with limited resources.

Hines’ case may be dead, but restrictions on telemedicine are very much a live issue, and state lawmakers will need to address this 2005 law again soon.