Florida poised to relax veterinary telemedicine laws

Change due to take effect July 1, pending the governor's review

Published: June 11, 2024
Screenshot from video of Florida Senate Committee on Regulated Industries hearing
During a hearing in February, Sen. Jennifer Bradley said that restrictions governing remote veterinary care in S 1040 are designed to prevent commercial providers from operating prescription mills in the state.

Florida is on the verge of joining a handful of states that allow veterinary care to be provided online without the need for an initial in-person examination.

The proposed new law, approved by lawmakers in March, was received by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday. He has until June 22 to veto the bill; otherwise, it will become law without his signature. A veto is not anticipated given the bill's unanimous support in the state Legislature. 

Controversial among veterinarians in the state, the act allows for the establishment of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship — the foundation of all care — by physically examining patients remotely using real-time audiovisual equipment rather than in person.

The change is supported by shelter groups, led by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and commercial remote care providers such as Chewy and Dutch Pet. They assert that in-person VCPR requirements are excessive and block access to care. Opposed to establishing a VCPR remotely, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association persuaded lawmakers to implement protective regulations for patients, although they didn't achieve all their objectives.

The current law in Florida, as in most states, allows veterinarians to remotely treat animals only if a VCPR has been established through a face-to-face exam within the past year. This requirement is upheld by much of organized veterinary medicine, which argues that telemedicine is an inadequate substitute for in-person care since animals cannot communicate using human language. 

Sen. Jennifer Bradley, who sponsored the legislation, informed lawmakers at a hearing in February that the proposed changes are much more restrictive compared to allowances in human telemedicine.

In brief

"Florida, as you all know, has been a national leader in telemedicine for people ... going so far last year as to liberalize telemedicine to a phone call and no video required," Bradley said.

She noted that physicians who provide remote health care in Florida are not required to have a state license, only a free certificate issued by the state. By contrast, she said, the veterinary telemedicine bill requires veterinarians who offer remote care in Florida to have a state license "to allow for proper oversight."

She pointed out additional restrictions in the bill, incorporated in response to concerns raised by the FVMA, that mandate an in-person exam to prescribe heartworm medications, controlled drugs, off-label drugs and compounded medications. Other prescription medications are limited to a 14-day supply except for flea and tick treatments, which can be prescribed for up to 30 days. No refills are allowed without an in-person exam.

One of the FVMA's unachieved goals was to ban nonresident veterinarians from remotely prescribing any medication to patients in the state.

"That's what we're asking for: Keep it in Florida," Dr. Richard Williams, co-chair of the FVMA Legislative Advocacy Committee, said to the Committee on Regulated Industries. "This bill requires that the veterinarian is licensed in Florida. It does not require that the veterinarian be located in Florida. And what is happening in other states, the other states that allow this, companies are setting up computer bank-filled rooms with veterinarians who have a Florida license, and they sit in some other state, possibly another country, and they prescribe medicines to Florida pets." 

Lawmakers elsewhere in the country are having similar debates. Last year, the ASPCA successfully lobbied state legislatures to loosen VCPR restrictions on remote veterinary care in Arizona and California. Those states joined Idaho, New Jersey, Vermont and Virginia in permitting the establishment of a VCPR remotely, though their regulations vary. 

New Jersey and Virginia require in-person examinations for veterinarians to prescribe a controlled substance, whereas Idaho prohibits the prescribing of any drugs if a VCPR is established solely through electronic means. In contrast, Vermont law imposes few restrictions. Arizona enacted a law that permits a remote VCPR accompanied by stringent prescribing limitations and additional requirements. Following suit, California passed legislation to allow a remote VCPR but with more lenient prescribing rules. 

Officials with the FVMA had anticipated generating enough opposition in the state Senate to stall SB 1040, the companion to HB 849. However, that didn't happen. In February, as the bill advanced in the Senate, the FVMA shifted its focus to negotiating amendments, according to Williams. 

"We had to switch gears, shifting from blocking it to gaining as much control as possible," he said.

Williams noted that the proposed new law at least provides clear guardrails in a state where the interpretation of existing guidelines has long been disputed.

Regulators have asserted that a VCPR must be established in person, following the federal VCPR definition. But commercial telemedicine providers and shelter groups have challenged this interpretation, countering that the state veterinary practice act does not specify an in-person requirement.

Leaning into that ambiguity, remote care providers such as Chewy and Dutch Pet have offered online-only care to pets in Florida for years.

That could be harder for those companies come July. In addition to prescribing limitations, Florida's new rules contain the following restrictions:

  • A VCPR cannot be established via phone, chat box consultations or other similar means.
  • Owners must provide signed consent on a form that includes the veterinarian's name, license number and contact information for a physical veterinary clinic near the patient's location.
  • Veterinarians must practice within their scope of practice and adhere to professional standards. 
  • Veterinarians cannot use telemedicine to prescribe medications to racing horses.
  • Veterinarians cannot use telemedicine to issue health certificates.
  • Owners must be informed that they have the option to fill their prescriptions at pharmacies other than the prescriber's.

FVMA's Williams anticipates that the ASPCA will return to the state Legislature next year in an attempt to loosen the new restrictions. However, the ASPCA did not confirm this, stating that legislative planning for 2025 is still in progress.

June 14 correction: This story has been changed to remove an example of a veterinarian practicing out of their scope. The example is not stated in the law.   

June 17 correction: This story has been changed to remove the statement that the ASPCA did not respond to requests for comment. The organization did respond to some requests for information but did not respond to the specific question of whether it would seek to change VCPR rules next year. The article now includes the organization's response to that question.

June 21 update: The governor signed the bill. 

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