The COVID-19 quack assault on state medical boards has begun, with the first shots fired in Tennessee and California, where there are a legislative assault and a potential actual assault, respectively. I’ll go into detail about what I mean in a moment, but first let me provide a brief history lesson.
I’ve been writing for a long time about what I (and others) perceive as the toothlessness of state medical boards when it comes to disciplining doctors who practice quackery, spread antivaccine disinformation, and in general demonstrate themselves unworthy of the privilege of holding they title of “physician.” Although I was writing about this as early as 2006, after a quack named Dr. Roy Kerry killed a six-year-old autistic child with chelation therapy for his autism. However, I didn’t really start to make state medical boards a cause until 2008, after Dr. Rashid Buttar, an antivaxxer who treated children with what he called “transdermal chelation therapy” and we called “Buttar’s butter,” got a slap on the wrist from the North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners, even after having described the Board as a “rabid dog” for having had the temerity to try to rein in his quackery. This quackery was practiced mostly on children and cancer patients at Buttar’s misnamed Center for Advanced Medicine, where he now offers hyperbaric oxygen, “energy medicine,” dubious tests for “heavy metals” and parasites, and a host of other unscientific medicine. Completely unsurprisingly, even after his run-in with his state medical board, Dr. Buttar has gone on to grift more and has been cited by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as a member of the “Disinformation Dozen” for spreading disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines against it.
Even before the pandemic, I could go on and on with other examples, such as how long it took the State of Texas to stop neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a.k.a. “Dr. Death,” from killing and maiming patients (which required a criminal prosecution); how, unfettered by our medical board, an oncologist in my own state gave chemotherapy to patients who didn’t have cancer and it took the FBI to bust him on fraud to finally stop him; how cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski has been treating desperately ill cancer patients with “antineoplastons” for 45 years and the Texas Medical Board has been unable to take away his license (the worst he’s gotten is a slap on the wrist), and a whole variety of other quacks, grifters, antivaxxers, and practitioners of pseudoscientific medicine continue to practice mostly unmolested, even as sometimes reporting a bad doctor to a state medical board can result in legal jeopardy.
It’s true that there have been exceptions, such as antivax hero Dr. “Bob” Sears, who was finally disciplined by the Medical Board of California; antivax pediatrician Dr. Paul Thomas, whose license was suspended in Oregon; Dr. Steven LaTulippe, whose license was suspended this year by the Oregon Medical Board for endangering patients by refusing to wear a mask in clinic and urging others not to wear one; and a handful of others. However, these are the exceptions. The vast majority of doctors practicing quackery and pushing COVID-19 disinformation continue to practice without their medical licenses being endangered. If you don’t believe me, look at how few of “America’s Frontline Doctors” have faced discipline. (I believe it is none.) One of them is going to be Florida’s highest ranking medical official.
It is also true that the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) issued a call to its member medical boards to take action against physicians spreading COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation, but I predicted that not much would come of it, and so far not much has. Will that change? Not if the quacks and their supporters have anything to say about it. Even the pretty anemic response of state medical boards thus far to the tsunami of COVID-19 disinformation being spread is a threat to quacks and their supporters, which likely explains why they are now targeting state medical boards.
For example, in Tennessee:
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.
Quacks and their legislative supporters targeting state medical boards is nothing new. It’s long been a tactic of antivaxxers and quacks to target state medical boards legislatively, just as advocates for pseudomedical “disciplines” like naturopathy, acupuncture, and the like have long targeted legislators to achieve licensure in more and more states. In the past, it was mostly quack-friendly legislators prodded by powerful pseudomedicine interests. For example, in 2010, the aforementioned Buttar led a successful effort by the North Carolina Integrative Medical Society to persuade legislators to change state law to make it friendlier to practitioners of alternative medicine. Now, North Carolina law prevents its medical board from disciplining a physician for using “non-traditional” or “experimental” treatments unless it can prove they are ineffective or more harmful that prevailing treatments.
Again, there is nothing new under the sun. A friend and colleague of mine, attorney Jann Bellamy, even has a whole series of posts on what she likes to refer to as “legislative alchemy” or “quack protection acts.” In the age of COVID-19, with powerful political forces opposing public health interventions and vaccination as they promote quack “miracle cures,” it is no surprise that increased pressure is being brought to bear on state medical boards to protect the unprecendently profitable grift train with political threats. And, if political threats don’t work, others might.
The head of the California Medical Board says members of an anti-vaccine group known to spread misinformation about COVID-19 treatments targeted her at her home and workplace in Walnut Creek on Monday. Former Walnut Creek Councilwoman Kristina Lawson, president of the state agency that licenses and disciplines medical doctors, first shared the “terrifying experience” on Twitter Wednesday.
I know some readers hate my embedding Tweets in posts, but in this case I don’t care. I think that the entire Twitter thread should be shown, so that you can see all of what Lawson had to say:
This is simply a new take on what resisters to public health interventions have been doing since early in the pandemic, whether it was armed militia members prowling the statehouse in my own state in April 2020 to intimidate lawmakers or antimaskers harassing public health officials and school board members until they resign, either from fear or just burnout from dealing with the stress of the job during a pandemic plus constant harassment. And if they won’t resign, sometimes they are fired by COVID-19-friendly governors and other executives. The subtext of Rep. Ragan’s threat is clear, his “aw-shucks” disavowal of any threat notwithstanding:
“I’m flattered that you and they think I have that much power. I can’t do that by myself,” Ragan said Tuesday ahead of the board’s vote, according to the newspaper “However, it is within the authority of the General Assembly, acting through the government operations committee, to dissolve them if we so desire.”
Sure, and Ragan is the chair of the committee that oversees the board, and the Tennessee legislature is chock-full of Republicans who would love to shield antivax disinformation from board action. Whether they’d go so far as to dissolve the state medical board to accomplish that, I tend to doubt, at least right now, but I could see them causing a whole lot of mischief short of that. (I can also see them eventually getting to the point where they might dissolve the board.) I also can’t help but note here that the abolition of state medical boards is a fond dream not just of quacks and antivaxxers, but of a certain libertarian bunch of doctors who view evidence-based guidelines as an unacceptable affront to physician autonomy and think that physicians should be able to practice without state regulation. (Yes, I’m talking about the AAPS, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which, unsurprisingly, promotes antivaccine views and COVID-19 disinformation.)
But back to California and this news report:
Lawson, a former mayor of Walnut Creek who was appointed to the board by former Gov. Jerry Brown, said on social media on Wednesday she grew concerned Monday after she noticed the people in a white SUV parked near her home and saw a drone near the house.
“I was concerned when I saw someone flying a drone over my house and saw a mysterious white truck parked outside my home. Later that day, my concern turned to terror,” she said in a statement.
Lawson added: “I arrived in the dark parking garage behind my office and experienced four men unexpectedly rush towards me, jumping out of the same white truck that had been parked outside my house. I then realized that these four men had been surreptitiously stalking me.”
Lawson said she decided to go public with what happened to her “to shed light on these reprehensible, unacceptable tactics of intimidation”
Walnut Creek Police spokeswoman Lt. Holley Connors said in a statement that a man claiming to be “a state detective from Georgia” called a police dispatcher on Monday and said that he was conducting “surveillance” in San Miguel, an unincorporated area near Walnut Creek.
The dispatcher asked the man, whose name was not made public, if he had a weapon, and the man responded that his gun was locked in a case, Connors said.
Connors said the same man called the Walnut Creek Police Department again later in the day to let them know he was in a parking lot in Walnut Creek with at least one other person.
“The Police Department determined that the man who called earlier in the day claiming to be a detective from Georgia was likely involved,” in the incident with Lawson, Connors wrote, adding that police have no evidence of a crime but that investigators are still gathering information.
You can’t tell me that this men didn’t know exactly what they were doing and trying to accomplish. Ambush tactics like the ones used against Lawson have long been part and parcel of the antivaccine movement’s tactics, too. The idea is to startle and frighten the “interview subject” in order to get her to react fearfully or angrily and thus produce embarrassing footage to post on YouTube or for antivaccine propaganda films disguised as a documentary. I remember one incident in particular from 2016. Antivaxxers pulled exactly this tactic with Dr. Paul Offit, a hero of mine who’s faced death threats from antivaxxers. Josh Coleman, who has a penchant for cosplaying V from V for Vendetta and Star Wars characters, organized a number of antivaccine protests in California, managed to corner Dr. Offit as he having breakfast alone in the cafeteria of the NYU-Langone Medical Center, where he was set to speak at a pro-vaccine conference. Offit, quite understandably feeling threatened, reacted…badly.
Here’s his description of the incident:
Let me explain what happened yesterday. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss sent me an email stating that the VAXXED crowd would be protesting before the symposium in front of NYU-Langone. So I took the early morning train (6:30am) from Philly so that I could get to NYU before they gathered. I don’t like having to walk through crowds like this for obvious reasons (I had to do this once at the CDC and it wasn’t fun.) I entered the main building where I was met by a security guard. I told him that I was one of the speakers and he directed me to go to the cafeteria for breakfast where “I would be safe.” After sitting near the window for about 15 minutes (not imagining this would ever be a problem) I noticed Polly Tommey filming me from the street and another woman gesturing for me to look at their VAXXED truck. It was unnerving. I felt ambushed. At the same time that I noticed this, a man claiming to be “the cameraman for VAXXED” came up behind me and asked me to come in to the VAXXED truck to be interviewed. He had what looked like a camera which was around his neck but now I know that he was actually recording me. I asked him if he was recording me and he said that he wasn’t. I declined his request politely several times but he persisted. Frankly the guy was a little frightening (now I know that this was Josh Coleman, who has a criminal past). So I cursed at him. Not terribly proud of this, but I’m human. I also can’t stand the way that the “VAXXED team” denigrates children with autism and scares parents away from vaccines. Frankly, I think their “quest” is a dangerous one. Now I’m just trying to deal with the fallout, primarily from our hospital’s PR team who are concerned that the video of me keeps showing up on their Facebook page. And so it goes.
Sound familiar? Antivaxxers have long stalked Dr. Offit, such that he often needs security when he gives talks to keep antivaxxers from disrupting them.
I’d be willing to bet that this is exactly the sort of thing America’s Frontline Doctors members were trying to accomplish with the chair of the California Medical Board, along with a private detective. You can bet that Lawson and medical board members were aware of the increasingly violent rhetoric from the antivaccine movement that’s become only more violent since the pandemic. These guys knew what they were doing. They were “ambushing” a woman in a fairly deserted place after having sent a message by flying a drone over her house, watching her daughter leave for school, and following her. Of course, they were smart enough to maintain plausible deniability and stay just within the law as they delivered their message.
As a result, the California Medical Association responded:
As did California State Senator Richard Pan:
Dr. Pan has, of course, also been subject to antivax intimidation and even assault. Indeed, when I appeared on a discussion panel with him three years ago in San Diego, he noted that he has to have security with him for public appearances. I even got a taste of this issue, as people whom we suspected to be antivaxxers tried to gain entrance to the conference. Even in my own little way, I once had an antivaxxer try to disrupt a talk of mine with confrontational questions years ago.
And who were these particular stalkers, who flew a drone over Lawson’s house, followed her daughter to school, watched her take her other child to school, and then confronted her in a deserted parking structure as she left the office to go to her car? Take a guess:
Lawson, through a spokesman, told The Sacramento Bee that the men identified themselves as belonging to a group called America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing political organization known to oppose COVID-19 vaccines and offer unproven treatments for those infected with the virus.
Last month, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus launched an investigation into the group for profiting off of questionable and unauthorized COVID-19 treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
Lawson said she later learned, through law enforcement, that the group planned to produce a video about her that would include footage of her house and neighborhood.
She said she decided to go public about what happened to shed light on the “reprehensible, unacceptable tactics of intimidation.”
I’ve written about America’s Frontline Doctor’s before. They’re the group to which Governor Ron DeSantis’ choice for Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo belongs. I first encountered them in the summer of 2020, when they were pushing the repurposed malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle cure” for COVID-19. (It’s not.) You might even recall that a prominent member of the group is Dr. Stella Immanuel, who believes that common gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches. This group was also recently caught grifting through dubious telehealth appointments and in essence running a prescription mill for ivermectin to treat COVID-19. Ivermectin, you might recall, is the new hydroxychloroquine in that it became the hot new “miracle cure” after evidence tilted conclusively against hydroxychloroquine having any efficacy in treating COVID-19. Although America’s Frontline Doctors tries to maintain plausible deniability about being antivaccine, its activities argue otherwise, such as when it sued the government alleging a “massive coverup” of “at least 45,000 deaths” from COVID-19 vaccines.
I view this latest tactic as a sign that maybe, just maybe, antivaxxers and COVID-19 quacks think that the statement of the FSMB might actually result in state medical boards getting serious about disciplining physicians who spread COVID-19 misinformation. I also view this tactic as a sign that state medical boards are going to be increasingly subject to the same political pressure and even physical threats that public health officials have been enduring since the pandemic started, which makes me fear that oversight over doctors will become less, not more, stringent. I fear that they very well might work, too. After all, most medial board members are underpaid, overworked, and do their jobs mostly out of a sense of duty, even as the boards themselves are understaffed and underfunded. Who could blame them? That’s the idea, unfortunately, and why this war on state medical boards has begun.