AUSTIN (KXAN) — Months after a KXAN investigation into problems at the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a new legislative report reveals the agency is still struggling to manage its data on animal doctors in the state.
The report found TBVME failed to implement previous recommendations by the Sunset Advisory Commission — a group of lawmakers and members of the public that evaluates the function and performance of state agencies. Sunset has reviewed this agency three times over the last six years.
“Without addressing basic, but important, state agency operations like contracting and data management, the board will continue to struggle to meet its important mission of establishing and enforcing policies to ensure the best quality of veterinary services and equine dental care for the animals of Texas,” the report stated.
After staff presented its report to lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday, the chair of the Commission, Sen. Charles Schwertner, called the continued problems “unacceptable.”
Schwertner sat on the Sunset Advisory Commission in 2017 when lawmakers first directed TBVME to fix the way it tracks licensing and enforcement information — instead of relying on Excel spreadsheets to manage the status of complaints and disciplinary cases. In 2021, Sunset staff noted database problems persisted.
In the spring of 2022, KXAN investigators found dozens of disciplinary documents still missing from the agency’s public licensee look-up website, which could prevent pet owners from seeing a veterinarian’s disciplinary history.
At the time, an attorney for the agency said many records were having to be uploaded manually, during a data migration. After the investigation aired, one of the agency’s leaders said he would look into the missing records and eventually said he got the issue “rectified.”
Sunset staff noted in its most recent report since 2017, the agency spent more than $180,000 trying to purchase a database system from different vendors but never received a final product.
The report explained TBVME had to cancel one contract after the main subcontractor working on the database went out of business. It entered into another contract with a different company in 2020, but current TBVME staff were not able to find that contract or other documents related to the work with that company.
Sunset staff called it “concerning” and went on to say the confusion “frustrates efforts to hold the agency accountable for the expenditures of public funds and raises questions of misuse.”
Rep. Justin Holland serves as the Sunset Advisory Commission Vice Chair and told KXAN the agency’s inability to produce a contract was a “red flag.”
“We need to get to the bottom of making sure that every single state agency runs as efficiently and effectively — ethically and morally — the people that are in those positions, on those boards — that they can go back to the general public and say, ‘this board regulates licensees and complaints, and we are very confident in our ability to do so.’ I am not very confident in the ability of this Veterinary Board to do so,” he said.
According to the Sunset report, the second contract went missing after TBVME’s executive staff resigned in April.
In September, Brittany Sharkey was named the new, permanent executive director of the agency. She previously served as general counsel for TBVME from 2019 to 2021.
During an October budget hearing at the Capitol, Sharkey testified about the new administration at the agency — noting funding for a new database was the agency’s “highest priority.”
According to its Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR), the agency has been “hindered by a lack of adequate resources to meet its core mission for the last several years,” which is why it is asking for more funding for a new database — $143,110 in one-time costs and $276,120 in ongoing expenses.
At the October meeting, Sharkey testified her staff is currently using a combination of some operational parts of a database and Excel spreadsheets to track information.
“This makes basic data reporting a complex task. Hours are spent pulling together case information for our board meetings, and it hinders the accuracy with which we can provide data to the public,” she said.
‘I need to see proof’
During Thursday’s Sunset hearing, Schwertner told the other members of the commission KXAN’s investigation revealed concerns about “the inability, really, to find just basic information about licensees on the website: basic complaints, the thoroughness of those complaints,” he said.
Lawmakers then questioned Sharkey and Keith Pardue, who recently became the Board Chair after serving on the board for several years, about how they planned to address the database problems and why they were not aware sooner.
“I do understand the mission of this agency to keep a high standard of veterinary care in the state of Texas. I am doing everything I know to do to keep that standard high and correct these issues,” Pardue said.
In an interview after the hearing, Schwertner told KXAN he is still not confident the agency is headed in the right direction.
“I need to see proof. I need to see action. I need to see them diligently working for the people of Texas,” he said. “People should take great confidence when they take their animal into a veterinarian not only has a license, but that that license has been vetted and data about that licensee — whether or not they have been investigated, if there are complaints about that licensee — that data can be easily found on a website, for instance, and then utilize their judgment on whether they want to take their animal and entrust their animal to that veterinarian.”
During the hearing, several lawmakers also noted how these data issues not only affect veterinarians’ work and the health of animals, but also could impact people’s safety, due to the access these licensees have to powerful prescription drugs.
The Sunset report compiled for Thursday’s hearing was specifically focused on problems with the database. However, staff noted several other issues in the report: from long complaint resolution times to a drop in inspections.
The report cited numbers from KXAN’s investigation, showing the agency took an average of 464 days to resolve a complaint in fiscal year 2021 — up from 221 days in fiscal year 2015. The report also noted a “steep decline” in how many inspections the agency conducted in 2021 – 56, down from closer to 500 in previous years.
Schwertner told KXAN, “Now, with work such as yours, and obviously the continued issues and data we are getting from the Sunset Commission, it is very evident that this agency needs further scrubbing, further review to make sure this agency is doing its job. Cause it is not doing its job at the current time.”
He put forth a motion to direct Sunset staff to evaluate other issues outside this limited scope review of the database. They are expected to report back to the commission in January 2023.
Jodi Long, DVM, who serves as the President-Elect of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, said the Sunset hearing revealed “an agency that is stretched too thinly to accomplish its mission,” but they planned to work with lawmakers and the new board leadership on finding ways to improve.
She told KXAN in a statement, “The public cannot have confidence that they are seeing the whole picture when they look at a veterinarian’s record. Meanwhile, veterinarians are waiting more than 500 days for complaints against them to be resolved.”
“Every vet I talk to has a problem with this board, this agency,” Holland said. “This can’t keep coming up every two years, and we are going to have to do something about it this session.”