AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers are trying to reform the state agency in charge of Texas animal doctors, but some veterinarians are pushing back against the current treatment plan.
Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, filed a bill last week that would temporarily attach the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) to another state agency, in order to help with its ongoing data and management issues.
Holland serves as the vice chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the performance of state agencies. Sunset reports have called out TBVME several times over the last six years and “repeatedly documented” problems with “unreliable and inconsistent data.”
In 2022, after these reviews, a KXAN investigation revealed that the problems persisted. KXAN found dozens of disciplinary records still missing from the agency’s public licensee look-up website, which could prevent pet owners from seeing a veterinarian’s disciplinary history. KXAN also found a backlog of complaints and investigations at the agency, leaving complainants and doctors, alike, waiting for resolution.
At the time, TBVME leaders pointed to ongoing trouble with finding and implementing the right software or database for its agency information. Eventually, the board president and executive director stepped down.
In January 2023, lawmakers on Sunset voted to take further action — recommending the legislature attach TBVME to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) for the next four years.
“They know how to take on licensees and different agencies and help them with their systems: their programs, their software. These are all things that are needed,” Holland said of TDLR. “The vet board in its current state wasn’t demonstrating to Sunset or the Legislature that they could handle those things.”
If passed by the legislature, the bill would require any rules or powers currently related to TBVME’s duties to be approved by TDLR and its oversight commission instead. The current Veterinary Board would serve as an “advisory committee” to TDLR, according to the bill.
The Texas Veterinary Medical Association, which advocates on behalf of veterinarians in the state, said it has “significant concerns” about this move. In a letter outlining the concerns, the association’s president Dr. Tamra Walthall called TDLR “an excellent resource” to help TBVME improve its internal processes and procedures. However, she argues “it simply lacks the specialized subject matter expertise necessary to run a medicine-focused agency.”
One of the association’s members, Austin-area veterinarian Dr. John Faught, told KXAN he would have liked to see other agencies and subject matter experts advise the veterinary board, alongside TDLR.
“I think there are a lot of agencies that have a knowledge base on how to handle complaint resolutions like that — that state board could learn from and work with — but I don’t know that they need to be put underneath them as a whole,” Faught said.
He said he believes his industry should have a board that understands the nuances of veterinary medicine.
Holland said he understands veterinarians are concerned about TBVME’s autonomy long-term and knows they do not want to see veterinary licenses issued by another agency. He emphasized that the bill calls for only a temporary — but necessary — change.
“We’re not trying to move their license to TDLR. We want them to issue their own licenses and be the Texas Vet Board again, but we need the processes and systems and the people and the help that TDLR brings to the table to do this,” he said. “We want them to be proud of their license. We want to be proud of the board that oversees and regulates their industry. We don’t quite have that right now.”
The new Executive Director of TBVME, Brittany Sharkey, told KXAN it has brought in new high-level staff and made other changes over the last six months.
“In that time, we prioritized our enforcement capabilities to ensure that we are protecting the public and their animals. We have conducted more compliance inspections this fiscal year than the previous two years combined. We’ve reduced the backlog of cases awaiting settlement conference and the Board is on track to approve more disciplinary orders than in the previous two years combined,” Sharkey said. “While we know we have a long way to go to restore the trust of the public and the legislature, we are confident that the agency is on the right track. We look forward to working with the legislature and the ongoing conversations about the future of the agency.”
The bill also requires TDLR and TBVME to create a “memorandum of understanding” by October, outlining how the agencies would work together and which TBVME staff would receive training. The memorandum also requires these agencies to consult with another state agency, the Department of Information Resources, for help procuring a “suitable” database to address TBVME’s needs.
“I think this was a wake-up call for the board to say, ‘Maybe we should be interacting more with our staff, our executive directors, our legal counsel, our programs,'” Holland said.
Walthall’s letter outlined other requests for lawmakers this session. For example, the association called funding requests made in years past by prior TBVME leadership “inadequate” and urged the legislature to increase funding for the agency, by granting this year’s funding request made by the new leadership.
The association is also pushing for the creation of a process to allow TBVME to dismiss meritless complaints. Walthall’s letter said the current code requires the board to investigate every complaint it receives and claims that this has contributed to its “backlog problem.”
While Holland’s bill does not address these items and is specifically focused on the Sunset recommendation, he said he has seen an earnest effort to make all the necessary changes and get the veterinary board back on track.
“It’s the full intention of the legislature for them to go back to a standalone board in 2027,” he said.