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DVM sues shelter for breach of law, client privacy
Fort Walton Beach, Fla. - A Florida veterinarian is refusing to hand over his clients' rabies vaccination data, arguing his county's interpretation of a state statute is violating patient privacy and medical confidentiality.
Fort Walton Beach, Fla. — A Florida veterinarian is refusing to hand over his clients' rabies vaccination data, arguing his county's interpretation of a state statute is violating patient privacy and medical confidentiality.
Despite a January ruling by the Okaloosa County Commissioners, Forrest Townsend, DVM at Bayside Animal Hospital, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is fighting to keep the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) from using veterinarian rabies-vaccination information to collect a $10 per-household area pet-licensing fee, which could raise more than $500,000 annually.
The intention of a state law regulating the release of the vaccine information — which includes the name, address and tag number of pet owners — is to manage animal bites, not collect funds, argues a suit filed on behalf of Townsend against PAWS, Dee Thompson-Poirrier, animal services director for PAWS and Okaloosa County.
"The suit seeks to have the court declare the ordinance unenforceable, unconstitutional and invalid, and that the county and PAWS be adjoined for enforcing or threatening to enforce veterinarians to comply with this," says Michelle Anchors, a Florida attorney who filed the suit.
"Anyone who has been bitten, scratched or exposed to a zoonotic disease, owns or is treating an animal that has, needs to be provided with any rabies certificate or information in regard to that animal," says Townsend. "Law enforcement, prosecutorial agencies, animal-control and government-control agencies should receive this information for the purpose of controlling the transmission of rabies. This is the intent of the law, and you are not supposed to use it to collect a tax."
While awaiting further case progress, Anchors and Townsend continue to study the impact legislation will have on area veterinarians and how their private medical records and patient information should be protected or dispersed. "We are trying to work with the county to come up with a solution that meets their needs without sacrificing the rights of patients and veterinarians," Anchors says. "Veterinarians and citizens are comfortable supporting the fee, but not how it is collected."
Unable to comment because of the pending litigation, Okaloosa County Commission Chairman James Campbell is working to have the situation resolved without further court involvement if possible.
A meeting was scheduled for late February to review the issue and encourage feedback from residents. "We decided not to make a knee-jerk reaction to the suit. We felt it was important enough to have a workshop on," Campbell says. "We got more calls on this issue that we do about taxes."
Currently naming only Townsend as a plaintiff, the case seeks class-action status to include any other veterinarians who are similarly affected, Anchors says. "I think it is an issue of overall community concern," she says. "It puts at risk the private information of our citizens."
The commissioners also face a suit filed by a private citizen who seeks attorney's fees, the return of his $10 licensing payment and a declaration of the law's unconstitutionality.
But it is the breach of privacy — not financial incentives — that is driving Townsend's suit. "We are not seeking money. He feels he is violating the standards he believes are important for his profession," Anchors says.
The legislation comes at a time of strained bureaucratic finances, government concerns, reduced property taxes and budgets. "The whole reason PAWS pushed the enforcement of that ordinance is to get those records, not because they are investigating bites, but because they want to enforce those taxes," Townsend says.
The legislation's financial windfall will be considerable for the county, with Townsend alone vaccinating more than 1,025 patients last year.
"People are very sensitive about their personal information. We're not upset about the $10," he says. "It is the issue of using personal information for an illegal purpose. To me, it is pretty senseless."