California veterinarians: Your fingerprints are needed

Practitioners trying to renew licenses are caught unawares

Published: December 20, 2019
By Edie Lau

Digital art by Tamara Rees
Sources: Adobe Stock/This is brk/300_librarians

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When Dr. Colin Chaves' veterinary license came up for renewal in November, the California practitioner took care of the paperwork and payment online a couple of weeks before the expiration date. He had no indication anything was amiss until the day his clinic tried to order a fresh batch of drugs.

The supplier declined the order, saying Chaves did not have an active license.

It was shocking and stressful, Chaves recounted this week, to learn so casually that "Hey, you're practicing without a license, by the way."

In a panic, Chaves' wife, who is practice manager of their clinic in Fort Bragg, called the state Veterinary Medical Board. It took several tries to reach someone. Finally, she learned that the board needed Chaves' fingerprints for his file.

Chaves was furious and confused. "I want to kick my foot through the wall right now," he wrote on Dec. 5 on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. "They HAVE MY FINGERPRINTS FROM WHEN I GOT MY LICENSE IN THE FIRST PLACE, 12 YEARS AGO."

Around California, other veterinarians have been experiencing similar frustrations. The problem is that while applicants of professional licenses in the state have been required since 1997 to submit a full set of fingerprints; and those wishing to renew their licenses have been required since 2012 to have an electronic record of fingerprints on file, it wasn't until May 15 this year that the state system could check for print records and hold license renewals of veterinarians whose prints were missing.

The explanation, as given in an information sheet provided this week by the veterinary board to the VIN News Service, has to do with the use and capabilities of a computerized system, called BreEZe, through which license applicants and licensees do business electronically with the state:

"BreEZe was recently designed to check for and receive [state] Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fingerprint results. If fingerprint results are missing from a licensee’s electronic file, licensees are notified on their renewal notices that fingerprints must be submitted to the DOJ, and license renewals are held until fingerprint results are received by the Board. If a licensee previously submitted fingerprints to the DOJ but the BreEZe system indicates the need for fingerprint results, an electronic record of the submission of fingerprints no longer exists or was never created."

Steps to submit electronic fingerprints

The board urges licensees whose prints are needed to take care of it as soon as possible. "Fingerprint results typically take 48 hours to be sent from the DOJ and FBI to BreEZe, but it could take up to two weeks depending on the quality of the fingerprints," the agency states.

In Fort Bragg, a small city in a remote section of the Northern California coast, Chaves said he typically updates his license online without waiting to receive a renewal notice because he's found his local mail system to be unreliable.

After renewing last month, Chaves said, he received an electronic receipt indicating that payment was received. "[A]ll it says is that it was approved, and they took payment, and there's just no indication of a problem at all," he said.

The same thing happened to Dr. Valerie Caruso. "They cashed my renewal check but I didn't realize my license had not come until [drug manufacturer] Zoetis refused an order," she wrote on the VIN message board.

Caruso told VIN News that she did not receive a renewal notice, possibly because she relocated from the town of Paradise to the city of Chico after Paradise was decimated by wildfire in November 2018.

Once she learned that her license renewal was held up, it was a mad dash to rectify the situation. "As a solo practitioner, [I] had to cancel appointments so I could rush out to get fingerprinted. It took two weeks for the paper copy to arrive, and I was fortunate that none of the other distributors caught that I was unlicensed," Caruso said by email.

Chaves, also a solo practitioner, similarly had to leave work in the middle of the day to get his prints recorded. "We would like to have been told in advance in a clear way that would have been hard to miss," he said. "At the very least ... when we did the renewal on Nov. 18, some sort of warning [should have been] flashed."

Jessica Sieferman, executive officer of the California Veterinary Medical Board, said by email that the agency is working on improving the system to alert licensees that they cannot renew until their fingerprint results are received. "This improvement is anticipated to launch in March," she said.

The board also is working with its information technology team to identify all licensees who do not have fingerprints on file. "We will send a mass email to those individuals," she said. "Please encourage your readers to check their BreEZe profiles to make sure their email [addresses] are updated in the system."

Veterinarians need not wait until their license renewals are due to submit their fingerprints.

The board information sheet about fingerprint records directs licensees to call the agency's main number, 916-515-5220, if, after following specified steps to submit their fingerprints, they have difficulty renewing their licenses online.

However, there's a chance that callers will have difficulty reaching someone at that number. Several veterinarians posted on VIN that they were stymied. Sieferman acknowledged the problem and said it's due to the agency being short-staffed. "Customer service is important to the Board, and we are diligently working to fill the vacancies," she responded. "Individuals can also email the Board, but we are experiencing a similar backlog, as the vacancies impact all licensing/admin functions. We are doing our best with our current resources to respond as timely as possible."

Why the state needs veterinarians' fingerprints

According to a VIN message board post by Raphael Moore, VIN's general counsel, "State licensing requires disclosure of convictions for violation of the law of any jurisdiction, short of traffic infractions not involving alcohol, dangerous drugs, controlled substances or animals."

He explained that when a conviction surfaces, the board assesses whether the violation "substantially relate[s] to the qualifications, functions or duties [of] a licensed professional to such a degree as evidencing a present or potential unfitness to hold the license ..."

He explained further that authorities cannot determine a licensee's criminal background simply by checking public records because records may be wrong or incomplete due to name changes, typographical errors on birth dates, or the use of foreign addresses, for example.

By comparison, electronic fingerprints provide a "positive biometric identification [that] is unique and assures more correct records of past criminal convictions," Moore wrote. "It also picks up sealed records, juvenile records, etc., which are not available with traditional employer-based background checks."

Moore noted that providing fingerprints to obtain a veterinary license is not unique to California, but required in other states, as well.

The veterinary board isn't the only licensing body in California to run into a problem with fingerprinting. The State Bar of California failed for nearly 30 years to comply with a mandate to arrange to keep fingerprint records so it could be notified of arrests and convictions of its members. According to a report in Above The Law, the bar finally began complying with the mandate two years ago. It subsequently discovered more than 2,000 convictions of lawyers it had not known about.

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