AUSTIN (KXAN) — Stepping off the elevator at the George HW Bush State Office Building, it’s apparent the staff on this floor recently moved into the newly-built building. While some of the surrounding offices and desks remain undecorated or even empty, Brittany Sharkey’s corner office feels settled: art on the walls, books on shelves and pictures in frames on her desk.

It’s an image of the urgent progress the new executive director said she is hoping to make at the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, or TBVME.

The state agency is responsible for overseeing and regulating animal doctors — and it is an agency which, according to lawmakers, has struggled for more than six years.

By 2022, a KXAN investigation found dozens of disciplinary records still missing from a website that was supposed to enable the public to search information about the agency’s licensees —raising new questions about its internal operations and transparency.

A new law now calls on the agency to give up some of its control, at least temporarily. During the legislative session in spring 2023, lawmakers voted to “attach” the TBVME to another state agency, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, or TDLR, for the next four years.

The governor signed the bill into law in June.

The partnership, which has been described as “rare” and even a “first-of-its-kind,” officially went into effect Sept. 1, and leadership at both agencies told KXAN the work has already begun.

“My goal is really to make the vet board the best small agency in the state of Texas,” Sharkey said. “I know that we’ve got some work to do, but I think we’ve really got the tools in place to get it done.”

Brittany Sharkey, executive director of the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, hopes to guide the agency through its attachment to another state agency for the next four years. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)
Brittany Sharkey, executive director of the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, hopes to guide the agency through its attachment to another state agency for the next four years. (KXAN Photo/Avery Travis)

Managing records

Sharkey said she began meeting with Mike Arismendez, executive director at TDLR, long before the law went into effect. He told KXAN his agency is focused on consumer protection.

“We want to make sure that all of those that are in Texas — that Texans — have the opportunity to know that anyone that comes into a space that’s licensed by us is protected,” Arismendez said.

He explained TDLR already operates a database with licensing information for its nearly 900,000 licensees across 37 different professions and industries. Its public website and search tool also tracks any penalties or violations by these licensees. He believes it’s one of the main reasons lawmakers elected his agency to help.  

“The citizens need to have access to that, and that’s one of the things that we will make you confident that they will have access to,” he said.

He said TDLR will also begin to “triage” the agency’s records on complaints, investigations and inspections.

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who authored the bill creating the attachment, said he believes this kind of record-keeping and data management should be the initial focus.

“One of the problems we have right now is that we can’t really tell — they’re not able to collect the information that they need,” he said. “I personally am a big advocate for government transparency. You have a problem, though, if the agency itself can’t find its own records.”

Johnson sits on the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is responsible for reviewing the performance of state agencies and which has raised concerns about TBVME in three different reports over the last six years. KXAN’s Avery Travis asked Johnson what makes this attachment different than steps lawmakers took in the past.

“This bill was very specific, and it was assigning administrative and management responsibilities to another entity — that is not a common occurrence. It took away some authority from a previously independent agency, so that’s quite significant,” he said. “While respecting their expertise, administratively, they weren’t getting the job done.”

Brittany Sharkey, the new Executive Director at the TBVME, sits down with KXAN's Avery Travis to talk about the agency's temporary attachment to another state agency, TDLR. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
Brittany Sharkey, the new executive director at the TBVME, sits down with KXAN’s Avery Travis to talk about the agency’s temporary attachment to another state agency, TDLR. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

‘Push and pull’

Under the law, TBVME’s board members will act as an advisory committee to TDLR on most matters — aside from issues dealing with medical scope of practice, over which TBVME will retain control.

After two years, TDLR will provide a list of recommendations to lawmakers. Johnson said he hopes to see progress, specifically on record-keeping and management, by then.

Another Sunset lawmaker, Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, authored the House version of the bill creating the attachment. He said lawmakers’ goal has always been getting TBVME back to being an autonomous agency.

“As Texas grows,” he explained, “this is going to be pretty important. I mean, just about everybody’s got a pet in their house, or in, you know, the agriculture industry.”

He acknowledged the attachment faced some pushback during the legislative session, primarily from industry experts over concerns about how to handle issues that require medical expertise. The final version of the bill ultimately allowed TBVME’s board, of which six members are practicing veterinarians, to retain control over those types of decisions.

As for how the two agencies will navigate the attachment, Holland remained generally upbeat and positive, but added, “I do expect, you know, to see a little bit of push and pull. Anytime you come in and you have a new process, there’s going to be some kinks to work out.”

Proof of progress

Sharkey and Arismendez, on the other hand, told KXAN they had not encountered any barriers or “kinks” in working with the other agency yet.

Sharkey does foresee one big, upcoming hurdle: the implementation of a new software system to track licensee information. She explained the agency currently uses one database to track license information while keeping information on any disciplinary action in separate Excel spreadsheets — accounting for some of the problems outlined in KXAN’s 2022 investigation.

“You’re going to have to combine two systems, and that’s always going to pose some challenges,” she noted.

Still, Sharkey believes her team made “great strides” on uploading disciplinary documents and righting problems with the public website, prior to the attachment officially going into effect.

She provided KXAN with numbers showing the number of compliance inspections the agency completed of its licensees dropped to less than 100 in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, down from roughly 900 each year prior. While the pandemic likely contributed to the slowdown, legislative reports noted that record-keeping and management issues at the agency also “undermined” its enforcement efforts and prevented it from meeting “basic expectations.”

According to the data provided by Sharkey, however, the agency has already completed more than 700 of those compliance inspections, so far in fiscal year 2023.

The data provided also show, in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the TBVME board executed and signed close to half the number of disciplinary orders for licensees as it had in previous years. So far this fiscal year, though, the board has already signed 101 of those orders.

Sharkey credits her small staff of 18 people for this progress but also noted that the legislature approved a budget for some additional employees: six additional investigators, a staff veterinarian and an additional staff attorney to help them “deal” with the caseload.  

“There’s a new game in town, and we are transparent, accountable and making sure that we’re doing everything we need to be doing,” she said. “You’re not going to get stonewalled … it’s not going to be a challenge to get documents and ask us for things. We’re going to be able to respond to those requests in a way that the previous administration just wasn’t.”

  • The number of compliance inspections completed for veterinarians licensed by the agency, according to data provided by TBVME staff.
  • The number of agreed orders for the outcome of potential disciplinary action, signed by teh TBVME board over the years, according to data provided by TBVME staff.

‘Skin in the game’

Sharkey was appointed in September 2022, after former leadership stepped down amid the legislative criticism and KXAN’s investigation. She had, however, served at the agency previously as its general counsel.

When asked how Texans can trust she would shepherd this agency in a different direction, Sharkey emphasized she left the agency after problems began to arise.

“I saw that we were not meeting our mission to the Texans — to Texans. I felt like I could not continue in this role. So, I left the agency and then was really honored when I — the opportunity opened up, I applied and the board interviewed me and chose me for this role.” She went on to say, “I take this very seriously; I’m a pet owner. I could not have more skin in the game if I tried, and I want Texans to know that we are really committed to making sure that their veterinary care is the best they can possibly receive.”