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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s medical licensing board voted Tuesday to delete a policy opposing coronavirus misinformation from its website due to fears a powerful conservative lawmaker would otherwise dissolve the board and replace its members.
The policy, unanimously adopted by the Board of Medical Examiners in September, establishes that doctors who spread demonstrably untrue information about COVID-19 vaccines could have their licenses suspended or potentially revoked. Members voted 7 to 3 to delete – but not rescind – the policy.
The deletion was spurred by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, a co-chair of the Joint Government Operations Committee, who insisted board members don't have the authority to create a new disciplinary offense without the approval of lawmakers on his committee.
Over the past two months, Ragan sent at least three letters pressuring the board to delete the policy or appear before the committee to explain itself. Ragan later made a "threat" to dissolve the board in behind-the-scenes discussions with the Department of Health, according to a letter from a department attorney obtained by The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Jennifer Putnam, an attorney who works with the board, warned board members that Ragan conveyed his “displeasure” with the misinformation policy “in the strongest terms.”
“Chairman Ragan also made clear he has no qualms above moving forward with dissolving the BME and reconstituting it with new members,” Putnam wrote. “He has in fact done this with another state agency, so it is not a hollow threat.”
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Ragan said Tuesday that deleting the policy from the board's website had functionally the same impact as rescinding it even if board members believed it did not. He said he did not recall specifically threatening to dissolve the board but confirmed he had a conversation with health department officials about the possibility.
Ragan said the Joint Government Operations Committee has the authority to “very seriously” recommend dissolution and he sets the agenda for the committee. A recommendation still must be approved by a majority of lawmakers, Ragan said.
“I’m flattered that you and they think I have that much power. I can’t do that by myself,” Ragan said Tuesday, before the board meeting. “However, it is within the authority of the General Assembly, acting through the government operations committee, to dissolve them if we so desire.”
Although board members deleted the policy to appease Ragan, they said they would not abandon its original purpose. Board President Dr. Melanie Blake opened the meeting by stating misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines had cost lives, health, jobs and “other incalculable losses in our society.”
When asked specifically by another board member if the board was voting to rescind the policy or merely remove it from a website, Blake confirmed it was the latter.
“Our mission remains unchanged,” Blake said.
This drew concern from Grant Mullins, another Department of Health attorney, who said he believed there was no precedent for the board maintaining a policy that was not published anywhere on the agency website. Mullins recommended the board conduct a second vote on whether to rescind the policy outright or adjust the website to match.
Board members declined.
“With all due respect Mr. Mullins, we’ve broken new ground … for a lot of things on this,” said board member Dr. Stephen Loyd. “We were asked to take this down. But when you are talking about rescinding a policy, or rescinding what our charge is, that’s a totally different vote.”
Medical board sought to discipline COVID-19 falsehoods and lies
The misinformation policy adopted in September aligned the official position of the board with the stance of the Federation of State Medical Boards, an overarching association of similar licensing officials. The entire policy was little more than one paragraph establishing doctors have an “ethical and professional responsibility” to share factual, scientifically-grounded information and could face consequences if they did not.
Board members also directed the Department of Health to begin investigating doctors who spread disprovable claims to patients or on social media. Investigators were told to prioritize cases involving obvious falsehoods or outrageous lies – that vaccines are poisonous, cause infertility, contain microchips, or can magnetize the body.
“I don’t know that we can police opinion, even though it's wrong and even though it's causing – obviously causing – major problems in this state,” said board member Dr. Debbie Christiansen at the September meeting. “But we can tell people they cannot say things that are absolutely false.”
The new policy quickly ran afoul of Tennessee's Republican supermajority. During a special session in October, lawmakers introduced at least three bills prohibiting the board from disciplining doctors for how they treat or what they say about coronavirus. One bill, which died in committee, required the governor to fire any board member who violated the prohibition.
Some of these restrictions were eventually folded into a COVID-19 omnibus bill passed by lawmakers on Oct. 30 and signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee on Nov. 12.
The new law specifically says that any disciplinary process implemented by a health-related board regarding the “dispensing or prescribing of medication for COVID-19” must be created as a government “rule,” which is a process that requires review and approval by Ragan’s committee.
Ragan said Tuesday that even before this law the medical board lacked the authority to singlehandedly create a new disciplinable offense. The process always required the legislature to “have a say in it,” he said.
“The distinction is very clear,” Ragan said. “Disciplinary actions cannot be done by policy – period. They can only be done by rule.”
Not all lawmakers agree.
Tennessee Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, who is a doctor and the only Republican senator who voted against the omnibus bill, said last week he objected to lawmakers inserting themselves into the board’s efforts to combat misinformation.
Doctors have a responsibility to be a “reliable source of information,” Briggs said. And the board is tasked with holding those same doctors accountable.
“The Government Operations Committee should not be telling the Board of Medical Examiners, who (are) charged with protecting the public health and safety, that they can’t do something to a doctor that’s intentionally giving known misinformation,” Briggs said.
This is the second time in eight months that Tennessee lawmakers have invoked the possibility of dissolving an entire government entity.
In June, during a contentious meeting of the same committee, several Republican lawmakers chastised the Department of Health for recommending the COVID-19 vaccine to teenagers and discussed dissolving the agency if this vaccine advocacy did not end.
In the wake of that meeting, the health department fired its top vaccine official and stopped advocating for children to be vaccinated – not just against COVID-19, but all illnesses. The shift prompted a fierce backlash, and the health department reversed some of these changes – but not all – later.
Contributing: Yue Stella, The Tennessean
Follow Brett Kelman on Twitter at @brettkelman.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee medical board to delete policy opposing COVID misinformation