Mercedes Clemens of Gaithersburg is not the first massage therapist to receive a cease and desist letter with threats of fines and more, but if she succeeds in court, she could very well be the last to receive such a letter.
It has become apparent to the staff of The Equiery that over the years, equine dentists and other nonveterinary animal wellness professionals have chafed under Maryland's strict Code of Veterinary Practice, which essentially prohibits anyone from practicing any sort of animal physical wellness or therapy unless under the "direct" supervision of a licensed vet.
Under this code, certain health care professionals--such as farriers, individuals caring for their own horses, vet techs and acupuncturists-- are exempt. Some dentistry is exempt, some not (see sidebar). Acupuncturists must be licensed to practice on animals by the State Board of Acupuncture as well as meeting other strict criteria within the Vet Code. Currently, the Maryland State Board of Chiropractic Examiners licenses massage therapists who work on humans. Mercedes Clemens notes in a June 10 press release and on her website that she is a licensed human massage therapist under the State Board, is privately certified in equine massage and is a Certified Equine Body Worker®. Unlike acupuncture, there is currently no license requirement for animal massage under the governing human board equivalent.
According to the website for the Institute for Justice (which is representing Clemens), as recently as September of 2003, the Maryland State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners was on record as stating that it did not consider animal massage to be the practice of veterinary medicine, and therefore subject to regulation by the board, as long as massage therapists were careful to limit the claims they made about the benefits of massage. Clemens was scrupulous in ensuring that she made no false claims, and her website clearly states: "Massage and/ or bodywork is used along with conventional and complementary health care as well as proper training techniques to enable a horse to perform at an optimum level. Massage or bodywork is NEVER a substitute or replacement for proper veterinary care. Horses should only receive massage and/or bodywork with veterinary consultation and approval. I am trained to work as part of a comprehensive health care team."
In the last five years, however, the Vet Board appears to have reversed itself, and is now working in conjunction with the State Board of Chiropractic Examiners to shut down animal massage therapists (more on how they are working together will appear in the next issue). According to Clemens, "Both Boards [the Vet Board and the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners] made their positions absolutely clear. I was informed by the Chiropractic board that if I continued my animal massage practice, I would face immediate revocation of my license to practice massage therapy on humans. The Veterinary board stated that licensed human massage therapists who practiced animal massage would be considered to be practicing veterinary medicine and would face criminal prosecution."
This is not the first incidence of The State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners sending cease and desist letters to "alternative" care professionals, including dentists; both The Equiery and the Maryland Horse Council have been contacted by health care practitioners who have received such letters. In the case of massage therapists, we have learned that they are often able to quickly resume practice by deleting a word or two from their marketing and including some sort of disclaimer (those therapists have been invited to share their stories in future issues).
Over the years, the MHC and other organizations have been asked to lobby to modify the regulations, a lengthy and often grueling process. Other than the accupunturists, who lobbied for their own modifications to the law, Maryland's other complementary and alternative equine health care professionals are still working to organize themselves so they can present a cohesive proposal and one voice.
Clemens has decided to take a different approach: Rather than attempting to amend the law, she is suing the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and the Board of Chiropractic Examiners for violation of her constitutional rights. "The Maryland Constitution protects my right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable regulations," she explains. "That's why I've joined with the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm with a history of defending economic liberty, [and why] we filed a lawsuit through the Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, challenging Maryland veterinarians' unconstitutional monopoly on animal massage."
Will Clemens' suit succeed in overturning Maryland vet law? Or is this a beginning of a dialogue that will ultimately amend the law?
The Equiery invites readers to share their experiences and thoughts on this issue, and will continue reporting on this topic in future "News & Views" columns. In the meantime, please visit equiery.com for more information.
Mercedes Clemens is a co-founder of The Equiery and was its art director for 15 years before retiring to practice massage.