Facing GOP pressure, Tennessee medical board votes to take down COVID misinformation policy

Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners, however, has not rescinded its policy

By: - December 7, 2021 7:41 pm
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, center, with Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, at right. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, center, with Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, at right. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners voted Tuesday to delete from a government website the text of a policy that warns doctors they could face discipline for spreading COVID misinformation — but the policy itself remains in effect. 

In a 30-minute emergency meeting on Tuesday — called in response to a demand from Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, to take down the policy — the board voted 7-3 to comply with the literal wording of his request. The policy will be removed from the state’s website, they agreed. But the board, which oversees disciplinary process for doctor misconduct of any kind, will continue to enforce it.

The policy, enacted by the 12-member board in September, says doctors who “generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by the state medical board, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license.”  Doctors, the policy says, “must share information that is factual, scientifically-grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health.”

It is painfully clear to the physicians who have served on the front lines of this pandemic that COVID-19 vaccine misinformation has caused undue loss of life, loss of health, loss of jobs and other incalculable losses to our society . . . I applaud the efforts to uphold our oath as physicians despite unprecedented challenges.

– Dr. Melanie Black, president, Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners

The policy angered some Republican lawmakers and, in a specially-called legislative session to limit COVID restrictions, the Tennessee General Assembly approved a measure that bars medical boards from adopting such policies without first getting approval from lawmakers.  Gov. Bill Lee signed the measure into law on Nov. 12.  In a series of letters to the board, Ragan then demanded the board “delete” the policy “without delay.”

Saying she was “compelled to call this meeting,” Dr. Melanie Blake, the board’s president, noted their anti-misinformation policy was consistent with major medical associations including the American Medical Association, the American Board of Internal Medicine, the American Board of Emergency Medicine and the American Board of Medical Specialities, which certifies 920,000 physicians across the United States.

“It is painfully clear to the physicians who have served on the front lines of this pandemic that COVID-19 vaccine misinformation has caused undue loss of life, loss of health, loss of jobs and other incalculable losses in our society,” she said. “The physicians who utilize resources such as www.covid19.tn.gov (published by Tennessee’s health department) among multiple resources have found a wealth of accurate information to assist them in their discussions with patients and I applaud the efforts to uphold our oath as physicians despite unprecedented challenges.

Ragan

The board’s vote to take the policy offline came minutes after the meeting convened. It appeared to confuse to some physicians who joined the virtual meeting to provide comment, warning the board against caving into political pressures to get rid of a policy that would hold Tennessee physicians accountable for spreading potentially life-threatening misinformation or disinformation about COVID 19.

“The mission of the board of medical examiners is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of Tennessee,” said Dr. Katrina Green, a board-certified emergency physician in Nashville and Lawrenceburg who joined the meeting to provide public comment.

“This is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly especially during a pandemic when lives are at stake,” she said. “We live in a state where politics has played an unfortunate negative role in our public health….We must protect the trust that is traditionally placed in physicians by ensuring those who cause harm by spreading misinformation and disinformation are subject to investigation and measure that hold them accountable.”

Dr. Katrina Green of Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Dr. Katrina Green of Nashville at a recent meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee: “Don’t take this policy lightly.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

Board member Dr. Phyllis Miller stressed the board had not backed down from enforcing its policy. It was simply not being published online.

“We have not rescinded our policy,” said Dr. Phyllis Miller. “Our charge is to protect the health and safety of citizens of Tennessee. That’s what our policy does. We put it on our website simply to inform our physicians. We voted only to take it off the website.”

The board’s decision prompted a Department of Health attorney to note that it was unprecedented for any health board to remove a public posting of a policy without rescinding it entirely.

“I’m not aware of any board removing a policy from the website but not rescinding it,” said Grant Miller, the attorney. “That would be a new thing. I would urge the board to either rescind the policy or keep it and have it on the website to reflect what is actually on the books, because we have an obligation to maintain a public record of what the board’s rules and policies actually are….That would be breaking some new ground and I would urge you not to pursue that path.”

Board members, however, were unpersuaded.

“With all due respect, Mr. Miller, we’ve broken new ground in my time on the board with a lot of things about this, not the least of which is this meeting that was declared an emergency, so we’ve broken a lot of new ground already,” said Dr. Stephen Lloyd, the board’s vice president. “We were asked to take this down. When you start talking about rescinding a policy or rescinding what our charge is, that’s a totally different vote.”

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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