Lawmakers dodge complaints about Board of Medical Examiners

Rep. John Ragan forced board to remove physician disciplinary policy for COVID-19

By: - December 15, 2021 5:19 pm
Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Rep. John Ragan quelled public comments Wednesday critical of his move to force the Board of Medical Examiners to delete a COVID-19 policy from its website.

Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican who co-chairs the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee, repeatedly interrupted Tennessee physicians who tried to address the matter and told them they could comment only on two separate rules introduced Tuesday during the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee meeting.

Responding to a November letter from Ragan, the board voted recently to remove a policy from the state website notifying physicians they could be disciplined for giving out bad information about COVID-19 or using treatments not approved for the disease. Despite that vote, the board kept the policy in place.

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Ragan sent the board a letter in November demanding it remove the policy statement from its website “without delay.” Otherwise, the board would be forced to come before the Government Operations Committee for a sunset hearing—a hearing in which the committee could recommend dissolution of the board. 

Three physicians tried to speak Wednesday about Ragan’s effort to control the state’s physician licensing and disciplinary board.

Dr. Amy Bono, a Nashville physician, told the committee the state is enduring another wave of COVID-19 cases and that the Board of Medical Examiners is trying to protect the public from “misinformation.”

“Laws that protect liars should not be on the books,” Bono said.

In another truncated and interrupted presentation, emergency physician Dr. Katrina Green pointed out the Board of Medical Examiners is charged with ensuring doctors are practicing “in a safe way.” She noted polls show the public believes physicians should be held accountable.

Sen. Mike Bell joined Ragan in shutting down the two speakers, as well as Memphis physician Kristin Miller, who asked that the Board of Medical Examiners come up with a definition for COVID-19 “misinformation” so practicing physicians and those from other countries won’t be penalized.

But when Ragan and Rep. Jay Reedy started talking about the policy and whether some physicians had been disciplined, Bell shut them down, pointing out the issue should not be discussed until the committee schedules a hearing.

What we were talking about was deliberate information that's harming folks. The Internet rumors and those type things that we do have providers spread.

– Dr. Stephen Lloyd, vice president, Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners

Afterward, Ragan contended that the Board of Medical Examiners should come up with a rule to deal with physician discipline and COVID-19, not enacting policy.

“The question was never whether or not they should be able to discipline doctors or not. The question was whether or not they should be doing it by virtue of what’s in the law,” Ragan said.

A new rule would come before the Government Operations Committee for approval.

The Uniform Administrative Procedures Act considers the practice of medicine to be a “private right,” and if someone is deprived of that right, it must be done in accordance with the law, Ragan said.

Apparently, the board’s policy, which was adopted in September, conflicts with legislation the General Assembly passed in late October. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee on Nov. 12 barring licensing boards such as the Board of Medical Examiners from disciplining doctors for spreading misinformation or dispensing unproven medications for COVID-19, such as the deworming medication ivermectin, unless the board sets special rules.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, says her precinct is liable to be redrawn into Rep. Sam McKenzie's. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said some members of the legislature “want to tell doctors have to do their jobs.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

After Wednesday’s meeting, Board of Medical Examiners Vice President Dr. Stephen Loyd said the board never intended to violate state law. It adopted the policy before the Legislature’s special session on COVID-19 policy and hasn’t had time to react.

The board only agreed with the Federation of State Medical Boards that any physician who spreads COVID-19 could face disciplinary action. The idea is not to interrupt the relationship between patients and their doctors in deciding whether the COVID-19 vaccine is the right move, he said.

“What we were talking about was deliberate information that’s harming folks. The Internet rumors and those type things that we do have providers that spread,” he said, alluding to speculation that the vaccine magnetizes a person’s body and describing a picture showing a hammer stuck to one’s head.

The board will be prepared after it meets in January and comes before the committee for a sunset hearing in 2022, Loyd said.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, was frustrated by Ragan’s interruptions and called it a “power grab.” The physicians should have been allowed to speak even if they weren’t on topic, she said.

“They want to tell the medical profession how to do their job, and … we should let the medical profession govern medical professions,” Johnson said.

The policy, which remains in place, was adopted by the board in September and states: “Physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation are risking disciplinary action by the state medical board, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license. Due to their specialized knowledge and training, licensed physicians possess a high degree of public trust and therefore have a powerful platform in society, whether they recognize it or not.

“They also have an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health. Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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