AUSTIN (KXAN) — Jodi Ware and Judy Santerre made their way into the Texas Capitol early Monday morning, but it wasn’t their first time there.
Both women lost pets to what they believe was veterinary malpractice. Both women claim the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) mishandled their cases. For years, they have sat in on hearings and meetings — testifying when possible — about ongoing problems at the state agency in charge of Texas animal doctors.
They watched as several, different legislative reviews highlighted the same issues with data management and complaint resolution at the agency.
“Despite my past pleas, the Board’s abject failures…worsened,” Ware described in her testimony to the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture, & Rural Affairs on Monday.
Ware reached out to KXAN investigators in 2021 to alert them about her concerns. KXAN ultimately found dozens of disciplinary records still missing from the agency’s public website and a backlog of complaints, leaving pet owners and veterinarians, alike, in the dark.
Steven Ogle, the Deputy Director of the Sunset Advisory Commission — which conducted the legislative reviews of TBVME — described the board over the years as an “agency in crisis” and a “mess.”
Earlier this year, Sunset recommended the legislature temporarily attach TBVME to another state agency, in order to help with data management, rulemaking and administrative tasks. The recommendation was filed as a bill this legislative session, and if passed, would allow the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) to step in and help for the next four years.
Ware and Santerre both testified in favor of this bill, Senate Bill 1414, which was ultimately passed by the committee and forwarded to the full Senate for consideration.
“We, the public, need good veterinarians, and we deserve a good board,” Ware told lawmakers.
Santerre told KXAN she is still checking TBVME’s website for missing records.
“They have not ever — in all these years — they have not gotten their database up and running,” she said.
‘Needs to be functional’
In 2022, KXAN interviewed Heather Kutyba, who waited more than 700 days for TBVME to resolve her complaint over how a Texas veterinarian treated her horse.
At the time, Kutyba said, “I felt that there were other people at risk because of their inaction.”
However, she testified against Senate Bill 1414 on Monday, telling KXAN she has seen major changes at the agency over the last six months as new leadership took over.
TBVME’s new Executive Director, Brittany Sharkey, testified to lawmakers about how her team has tried to “right the ship” by doing more inspections so far this year than the last two years combined and by focusing on case resolution times.
In addition to the recent changes, Kutyba said she had another reason for urging lawmakers to say “nay.” She said, as someone who worked in the veterinary industry for years, she would like to see someone with veterinary expertise, or even a consultant, step in — rather than TDLR.
She believes “that would allow the agency to remain independent, keep its regulatory capacity and serve the public in every which way.”
Dr. Jodi Long, a practicing veterinarian and the president of Texas Veterinary Medical Association, also had concerns about TDLR having veto power over board decisions concerning medical expertise.
“Administratively, they are great at what they do,” he said. “TDLR doesn’t have the expertise, education and opportunity to be experts in veterinary medicine, but we do need that still.”
Long said those were conversations she and her association would continue to have with lawmakers because they recognize oversight for the board is necessary.
“The board needs to be functional,” she said.
‘Seems to be pointless’
Long also testified on a second bill, Senate Bill 1523, that would allow TBVME to dismiss meritless complaints. She pointed to other agencies who have similar processes for evaluating complaints and noted that this would help the board better function.
KXAN’s original investigation and the Sunset reviews documented a backlog of complaints and cases, pending at TBVME.
“Having those frivolous cases that come through just take up very finite resources that the board has. We want the board to be able to concentrate on those cases that truly need intervention,” she explained.
But Ware and Santerre both worry — given the agency’s history — that this could allow serious cases to fall through the cracks.
“To give them supervision is a great thing, but if you take away a lot of what they are supposed to do before you do that, it seems to be pointless,” Santerre said.
SB 1523 passed through committee and will advance to the full Senate for consideration. Additionally, there are two House companion bills similar to the Senate bills.