NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's medical licensing board has voted to remove from its website its recently adopted policy against the spread of coronavirus misinformation by doctors, acting under pressure from a GOP state lawmaker and a new law imposing sprawling virus-related restrictions.
The exchange spurring Tuesday's vote by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners offers yet another example of how politicized actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have become. The move also stirred some confusion because board members said the policy still remains in force even though it's not posted online.
In September, the board adopted the policy, which says “physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards.” It added that spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts ethical and professional responsibilities and "threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk."
The statement, originating from the board of the Federation of State Medical Boards, prompted a backlash from Republican Rep. John Ragan.
Ragan has argued that the change should have to go before the rulemaking oversight committee that he co-chairs. In late October, Republican lawmakers passed sprawling new coronavirus limitations, including one change that says any disciplinary process by a health board related to dispensing or prescribing medication for COVID-19 must go through the rulemaking process involving lawmakers.
Ragan sent the board letters telling the panel to remove the misinformation statement or testify before his committee. In a message obtained by The Tennessean, an attorney working with the board told its members that Ragan had “no qualms” about dissolving the board and reconstituting it with new members.
Ragan told The Tennessean he discussed the possibility of such a move with health department officials. But he said a majority of lawmakers still would need to vote on a recommendation by his committee, so he couldn't do that by himself. However, he told the newspaper that removing the misinformation policy from the website had the same effect as rescinding it.
At Tuesday's meeting, Board of Medical Examiners attorney Francine Baca-Chavez declared there was “nothing wrong or erroneous” with the board adopting its misinformation policy, but said “the legal landscape has changed."
Board president Dr. Melanie Blake said there are “still a number of questions” about the new state law. But, regarding the misinformation policy, she said the board's “mission remains unchanged.” Other board members echoed the idea.
“We have not rescinded our policy,” said Dr. Phyllis Miller. “Our charge is to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Tennessee. That’s what our policy does. We put it on the website simply to inform our physicians and we voted only to take it off of our website.”
The move drew a word of caution from Tennessee Department of Health attorney Grant Mullins. He said the change “creates a lot of confusion for your licensees." He said he is not aware of a board removing a policy from a website, but not rescinding it.
“I would urge the board to either rescind the policy or keep it and have the website reflect what is actually on the books,” Mullins said.
The board declined to revisit the move.
“We’ve broken a lot of new ground already and we were asked to take this down," said board vice president Dr. Stephen Loyd. "When you start asking about rescinding a policy, or rescinding what our charge is, that’s a totally different vote.”
The sweeping new law signed last month by Republican Gov. Bill Lee also largely bars governments and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, and only lets schools and other public entities require masks in rare, dire public health situations, with limited exceptions. The school mask limitations remain blocked by a federal judge.
The state had approved dozens of exemptions for public and private entities that risked losing federal funding because the law conflicts with COVID-19 vaccine requirements under Democratic President Joe Biden's administration. When judges blocked vaccine requirements for federal contractors and health care providers, officials revoked the exemptions, noting that they could be reinstated if future court rulings go the other way.
Vanderbilt University, for one, announced that it will now require either regular COVID-19 testing or proof of vaccinations, in place of its previous vaccine requirement.
GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton's spokesperson, Doug Kufner, said Vanderbilt "appears to be operating in conformity with our new state law because it is providing a COVID-19 testing alternative to its faculty, students, and staff who make the personal decision not to be vaccinated.”