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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Bill allowing virtual vet visits in Florida passes, awaits DeSantis' signature

Veterinarian and an assistant tending to a dog
Valentina Sarmiento
University of Florida
Michael Sturgeon, 45, examines a dog at Animal Veterinary Clinic in Gainesville, Florida, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. He is concerned about new legislation in Florida allowing veterinarians to treat pets remotely, saying he wouldn't be able to perform a physical exam on sick pets.

The Florida Legislature on Thursday passed a bill authorizing virtual veterinary care.

Milo, a 3-year-old goldendoodle, was recently diagnosed with Addison’s disease, which means he lacks the steroid production to calm down when stressed.

“[He] can die from it if [he’s] not treated. But with treatment [he’s] perfectly fine,” said Varesha Mauney, 56, of Palm Beach Gardens in South Florida. Mauney said Milo’s health care requires daily treatment. “He has to take medication for the rest of his life,” she said.

Caring for his condition can be costly and time consuming – care that may now become less burdensome for Mauney, and thousands of others across the state, now that the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a bill authorizing virtual veterinary care.

A televet is great for follow-up questions, prescriptions and developments regarding existing conditions like Milo’s, Mauney said.

Current state law allows veterinarians to treat animals via telemedicine only if the patient has been seen in person within a year.

The new measure, still awaiting the governor’s signature, would allow telemedicine for pets as a regular form of treatment, and would create a series of regulations for televet care in the state. It also would authorize telehealth for initial appointments establishing the veterinarian/client relationship - and would allow vets to prescribe certain drugs via televisits.

“There are certain prescriptions the vet cannot prescribe because [they are] too strong of a drug,” said Rep. Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, who sponsored the House bill. “If a vet is communicating with a pet owner and the vet is uncomfortable with making a diagnosis or prescribing something, then you can say, ‘I'm not comfortable doing it,’’ he said. “It's at the discretion of the pet owner and of the veterinarian.”

“The current system of care based on the brick and mortar clinic is not serving the public and it's not serving pet owners. We need broad access to telemedicine to help address those geographical, logistical, financial obstacles.”
Jennifer Hobgood, lobbyist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Vet telemedicine is projected to grow 18% every year for the next 10 years, compounding business revenue for practicing vets. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, people who worked remotely were eight times as likely to acquire a pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, with work-from-home jobs driving the demand for telehealth vet services.

“Veterinary clinics don't want 10 people that have a minor issue with a pet in their entryway yelling and screaming to get an appointment, when in fact it could have been resolved, rather by telemedicine,” said Mark Cushing, CEO and founder of The Animal Policy Group and co-founder of the Veterinary Virtual Care Association.

If telemedicine is used in humans, it will also work on pets, said Cushing. “Why did human medicine adopt telemedicine in all 50 states? For these reasons: Many people lived in areas where they were not close to a doctor or a hospital or a practice,” Cushing said, “The same thing is true for pet owners.”

Alex Steverson, a Tallahassee veterinarian, argued against the legislation during a Senate committee hearing last month.

“Our patients cannot communicate,” Steverson said. “We are relying on the interpretation of a lay person, non-medical owner, to tell us what they think is wrong with their pet.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend telemedicine in babies under 2 years old, due to the fact that they are not communicative, he said. Similarly, pet owners can be “way off base about what is wrong with their pet,” Steverson said.

Michael Sturgeon, 45, has been a veterinarian for 17 years. He practices at Animal Veterinary Clinic in Gainesville – and doesn’t practice telemedicine.

“It's going to be hard to advocate for those pets, as veterinarians, even over the phone, simply based on what the owner is telling us,” he said. “Because oftentimes, even in the brick and mortar, they tell us what they want, but they're missing the underlying problems or are upset about cost and it becomes a challenge for all of us.”

Sturgeon said that dealing with sick patients through a virtual visit, he can’t perform a physical exam. His priority is for the pet to be happy and healthy and the owner “financially conscious of what they are investing in,” he said.

Older man holding two dogs on leashes
Jimena Romero
University of Florida
Jubal Lethario, 4, (left) and Hank Williams Jr., 14, (right) go to the veterinarian at least once a year, said their owner Sam Welker, 71, during their morning walk on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, at Tom Petty Park in Gainesville, Florida.

“I certainly think that it has its place. In which case, I think defining it will be better for both the profession, the doctors and for the owners,” Sturgeon said. “The legality of it. I guess, it would also be important to have a better understanding overall.”

As an advocate for veterinarian telemedicine, Jennifer Hobgood, a lobbyist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is concerned about veterinarian shortages and healthcare access for pets in the country – something that she hopes the new law would lessen in the state.

“The current system of care based on the brick and mortar clinic is not serving the public and it's not serving pet owners,” Hobgood said. “We need broad access to telemedicine to help address those geographical, logistical, financial obstacles.”

In Florida, there are at least 19 counties where access to veterinarians is inconvenient, according to the Veterinary Care Accessibility project. Among the lowest scoring counties measuring access to care are DeSoto, Hendry, Gadsen and Lafayette.

The University of Florida projects a shortage of 14,000 to 24,000 companion-animal veterinarians by 2030, said James Lloyd, the former dean of UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Sam Welker, 71, has two dogs and 15 cats in his Gainesville household. He doesn’t trust virtual vet care.

“Of the 15 [cats], probably 6, maybe 7 are on special food, special meds and some of them go to the vet at least once a month,” Welker said. “So, we like our vets.”

Hank Williams Jr., Welker’s 14-year-old Treeing Walker Coonhound goes to the vet for acupuncture every two weeks. Jubal Lethario, Welker’s 4-year-old German shorthaired pointer, goes just once a year.

“I don’t want to risk it,” Welker said. “I trust my vet when I see them at their office, when I see their diplomas.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Business, a news service covering business news from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at j.romeroguzman@ufl.edu.
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