The GOP Just Forced Tennessee to Let Doctors Spread COVID Misinformation

Republican lawmakers have strong-armed the state’s medical licensing board, which deleted its warning against doctors spreading misinformation.
​Morsa Images/Getty Images
Morsa Images/Getty Images

Tennessee Republican lawmakers have strong-armed the state’s medical licensing board into walking back a warning against doctors spreading misinformation and lies about COVID-19.

In July, the state’s public health agency ended outreach for all forms of vaccination to children before later resuming nearly all forms of that outreach, after public outcry. 

Now, the state’s Board of Medical Examiners, which issues medical licenses, has been forced to delete a policy from its website stating that healthcare providers who spread COVID-19 misinformation could have their medical licenses suspended or revoked, according to the Tennessean. The decision reportedly came after an influential House lawmaker threatened to dissolve the board if they didn’t walk back the guidance. 

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Republican State Rep. John Ragan, who co-chairs the powerful Joint Committee on Government Operations, has reportedly sent three letters to the board over the past few months attempting to force them to delete the policy or appear before the committee, according to the Tennessean. The direct threat was reportedly detailed in a letter from Jennifer Putnam, a senior associate general counsel for the Tennessee Department of Health who said Ragan condemned the 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.”

The policy was adopted unanimously by the state medical board on September 21, and says that the board agrees with a statement issued in July by the Federation of State Medical Boards, a national organization. 

“Physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license,” that statement says, adding that spreading COVID-19 misinformation contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”

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The state board voted 7-3 Tuesday to delete the policy from its website. When another Health department employee asked for a second vote on whether to rescind the policy outright, board members refused to do so, according to the Tennessean. 

Ragan claimed the deletion as a victory anyway.

“I’m flattered that you and they think I have that much power [to dissolve the board]. I can’t do that by myself,” Ragan told the Tennessean 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.”

A COVID-19 omnibus bill signed into law by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last month included a provision that regulations set by state health boards relating to “dispensing or prescribing of medication for COVID-19” have to be approved by Ragan’s committee. 

The only Republican state senator to vote against the bill was Sen. Richard Briggs, a doctor. Briggs criticized the legislature’s attempt to bully the medical licensing board into allowing doctors to spread misinformation last week. “Experts” on the board, rather than “experts on the operations committee,” should be handling doctor conduct, Briggs told the Knoxville News Sentinel recently

“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 told the Tennessean last week.

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