By Dan Ross
In the formal hearing Friday morning of the Veterinary Medical Board's petition for an interim suspension of California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director Jeff Blea's medical license, both sides laid out their arguments.
In short, the deputy attorney general Elaine Yan representing the veterinary board took a procedural defense of the petition, arguing that the allegations against Blea amount to violations of standards of practice within the veterinary community as codified in the veterinary medicine practice act.
“These guidelines emphasize the importance of examinations and diagnosis,” said Yan, before zeroing in on what she said is the “most important part” of the clinical guidelines.
“It states, and I quote, 'Documentation of the use of all prescription drugs should conform to the requirements of the applicable state veterinary practice act,'” said Yan.
George Wallace, Blea's attorney, argued that the allegations against Blea don't meet the “extraordinary standard” that is typically required to suspend a veterinary license, and that no formal hearing on the “merit” of the allegations has yet been conducted and thus proven.
“You've had drunken veterinarians. You've had substance abusing veterinarians who you would not trust in a surgical suite. You have had grossly incompetent veterinarians who keep messing up even after the accusations have been filed,” said Wallace.
“In none of those cases has the veterinary medical board sought in interim suspension order. Dr. Blea is apparently the most dangerous veterinarian in existence in California, and the board has not articulated an actual present remotely likely danger that is posed by letting this disciplinary process go through the process of hearing the merits and a determination,” Wallace added.
Administrative law judge Nana Chin has 30 days with which to issue a written ruling on the case. According to Wallace, he expects that ruling to arrive by the end of next week.
Earlier this month, the California Veterinary Medical Board announced that an emergency hearing had resulted in an interim suspension of Blea's veterinary license for a number of alleged offenses, including purportedly administering “dangerous drugs” to racehorses without a prior examination, without forming a diagnosis and without medical necessity.
The veterinary board also claims that Blea presents a “danger to public health, safety and welfare,” due to his oversight as equine medical director of the high-profile investigation into the death of the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit (Protonico), the Kentucky Derby winner who collapsed and died after a scheduled workout on Dec. 6 at Santa Anita.
A TDN investigation into the accusations leveled against Blea found a consensus among veterinary medical experts that the infractions are largely matters of poor record-keeping which rarely, if ever, rise to the level of a suspended license.
The role of equine medical director is first appointed by the dean of UC Davis, who then contracts out the appointee's services to the CHRB.
Last week, UC Davis placed Blea on administrative leave pending a formal review of his veterinary license–this, despite the CHRB's arguments that the position isn't one that has historically required an active license.
At the beginning of Friday's hearing, an attorney representing the CHRB attempted to formally participate in the hearing by arguing that the veterinary board's actions to remove Blea from his equine medical director position constitutes regulatory overreach.
In response, deputy attorney general Michael Yi argued that it did fall within the veterinary board's purview because the statutory definition of the position means that Blea is actively “engaging in veterinary medicine by conducting his duties.”
Judge Chin, however, said that the sole purpose of the hearing was to examine the merits of the allegations against Blea.
“This is something that will have to be dealt with at a full administrative hearing where parties can argue whether that constitutes unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine,” said Chin, about whether the equine medical director position requires an active license.
This left deputy attorney general Yan to argue that an interim suspension of Blea's license was necessary in the event Blea returned to veterinary practice.
In doing so, Yan cited a passage of the veterinary board's petition for an interim suspension against Blea where he's alleged to have administered, from January 2021 through March 2021, medications to 3,225 horses. “This averages out to be 48 horses per day,” the petition states.
“The fact that he can go back to administering drugs to 50 horses a day, thousands of horses a month, at the behest of the trainer and not in the best interest of the horses, truly poses a serious danger to public and equine health if his license is restored,” said Yan.
Wallace argued that Blea, who hasn't practiced veterinary medicine since he took over as CHRB equine medical director last year, has no intention of returning to practice in the near future.
Wallace also suggested that the judge could “fine tune” an order to deny the interim suspension for Blea so that he could resume his equine medical director post, and still prevent him from returning to medical practice.
“But you shouldn't even get to that. You should deny this petition outright,” said Wallace. “And if you could, I would ask you to vacate the original suspension as improvidently granted retroactive to January third.”
Wallace added, “The board has not met the standard for this extraordinary imposition on quite possibly one of the finest veterinarians in America, and I would submit that this must be denied and repudiated in every way possible.”