Vet’s retirement doesn’t diminish need for reform

Posted on Wed, Aug. 04, 2004

TWO YEARS AFTER he became the poster child for the need to reform South Carolina’s system for regulating veterinarians, Dr. Stan Gorlitsky has sold his practice and agreed not to open another one in the state.

Unfortunately, while he won’t be able to harm any more pets, this action was the result of an agreement between the Mount Pleasant veterinarian and the state Board of Veterinary medical Examiners. That means the board was not able to unilaterally revoke Dr. Gorlitsky’s license, despite its finding that he had been incompetent and negligent in his care for animals in South Carolina — and that he had left behind a string of dead or severely injured pets in two other states.

Worse, in the two years since his botched, and nearly fatal, spay surgery of a kitten named Pumpkin vaulted the veterinarian and the sorry state of our laws onto the front page, the Legislature has not fixed the problem.

Legislators tried; they just didn’t try hard enough to overcome the determined objections of a state senator whose father, a veterinarian, would potentially be affected by the new rules. More than a year ago, the House and the Senate both passed veterinary reform bills. Then they spent the first half of this year trying to work out the differences between the two versions. Once they finally did — over the objection of negotiator Danny Verdin — it was late enough that Sen. Verdin was able to block a Senate vote on the compromise.

Sen. Verdin said he had no problem with most of the changes, which included an internship requirement for new veterinarians. But he adamantly opposed the heart of the legislation — an amazingly modest proposal to partially lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds pet owners’ complaints about potentially dangerous veterinarians.

It is that veil of secrecy, more than any weakness in the authorized powers of the Board of Veterinary Medicine, that makes South Carolina a potentially dangerous place for pets — and for people as well. That veil of secrecy shielded many of the complaints that other pet owners had filed against Dr. Gorlitsky. That meant that even if Pumpkin’s owner checked references, she wouldn’t have had any idea how bad his record was.

Sen. Verdin argued that letting the public know about complaints would lead pet owners to switch to veterinarians against whom complaints had not been filed — which, of course, is one of the main reasons the state would take it upon itself to license and regulate any profession: to allow the public to protect itself from potentially dangerous professionals.

The secrecy that shrouds complaints, and sometimes even “disciplinary actions,” is not limited to veterinarians. It is the hallmark of nearly all the professional disciplinary systems in the state. And it needs to be changed in all cases. What is so appalling is that our state’s cult of secrecy is so strong that it cannot be broken even when we have such a clear-cut, high-profile example of the danger it poses.

Sen. Verdin’s actions were, frankly, outrageous, and all the more so because of his personal connection to the profession. But the larger problem is that the rest of the Legislature allowed his protectionist, anti-consumer attitude to carry the day. While it would have been difficult (though not impossible) for the House to break the impasse, the Senate could easily have passed the new law over his objections. Pet lovers should demand to know why their senator didn’t do that. And they should demand that the legislation be passed next year.

© 2004 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.