South Carolina Bills Would Open Disciplinary Hearings, May Mirror National Trend

Two bills pending review by the South Carolina general assembly would change the Practice Act for the first time in almost 30 years, opening disciplinary hearings to complainants along with nine other changes that will bring the Practice Act up to date, said Kelley Jones, executive director of the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians. The association supports the two bills - Senate bill 499 and House bill 3615 – that were amended April 19 and 27, 2005, respectively. And while some veterinarians worry about confidentiality issues, others see a national trend toward open access to disciplinary hearings.

On a national level, sunshine laws determine when complaints become public, said Charlotte Ronan, executive director of the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. In Missouri, where the association is based, complaints become public once the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners determines that there has been a violation of the Practice Act, she said. In Arizona, disciplinary hearings are open to the public.

And according to an informal survey conducted by the South Carolina Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, public access to disciplinary hearings - or portions of the hearings - is a slow but steady national trend. In some cases executive sessions, when decisions are made, are closed to the public even if deliberations are open to the public.

“There seems to be a trend to have information available to the public,” Ronan said. Jones agreed. “There is movement in the direction of more openness in disciplinary hearings. The world is much more consumer-oriented,” he said.

And while South Carolina veterinarians support the bill some worry that public access to hearings could damage reputations before claims have been deemed appropriate by the board. “There is some concern about the concept of innocent until proven guilty,” Jones said. “It’s a question of where you draw the line.”

Other industry members believe that open hearings can improve public perception of the profession. “I think it [hearings] should be open,” said Gregory Denis, JD, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Legal Association. “It does serve the profession because the public can see justice being done.”

Currently disciplinary hearings in South Carolina are closed but decisions are made public. The bill would allow the person who made a complaint to sit in on the presentation of evidence but not participate in the hearing, Jones explained. A client, who has supported the bill, wants every aspect of the hearings to be open to the public, he added.

This is the second go-around for this issue in South Carolina. A similar bill, which was more liberal in its attempt to open disciplinary hearings, died in committee last year, Jones said. And although confidentiality is one of several aspects of the bill, which includes increased fines and requires an internship for new graduates, it has been highlighted by local media and has become a source of concern for some veterinarians. “This is an important part of legislation,” Jones said. “I’m asking everyone to remember the big picture.”

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