GOP pushback leads to Tennessee health board deleting its anti-misinformation policy

GOP pushback leads to Tennessee health board deleting its anti-misinformation policy
U.S. Air Force Capt. Kimberly Warstler, R.N., stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., dons proper personal protective equipment to enter a room with a COVID-19 positive patient at the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, Nov. 13, 2020. Warstler is a Lone Star State native, having received her nursing degree from Texas Tech University, and says she's proud to return to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. She, along with approximately 60 service members, are working jointly with the civilian hospitals to assist in the mitigation of the virus and help citizens in need. U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, remains committed to providing flexible Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in support of the whole-of-America COVID-19 response. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Samantha Hall)

The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners recently voted to remove a policy prohibiting the circulation of COVID-related misinformation amid mounting pressure and fear that a conservative lawmaker would subsequently dissolve the board or replace all of its members.

According to The Tennesseean, the policy, which was previously implemented by way of a unanimous vote by the board, sought to establish consequences for "doctors who spread demonstrably untrue information about COVID-19 vaccines." Such actions could lead to them having their medical licenses "suspended or potentially revoked." However, now members of the board have voted 7 - 3 to reverse the policy.

The mounting pressure came as a result of pressure board members faced from Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge, Tenn.), co-chair of the Joint Government Operations Committee (GOC). After the policy was adopted, Ragan argued that board members did not have the authority to impose disciplinary consequences without consent from the lawmakers overseeing the board.

Despite the reports, Ragan claims he did not recall making any threats to dissolve the board but Jennifer Putnam, an attorney working with the board, "warned board members that Ragan conveyed his 'displeasure' with the misinformation policy 'in the strongest terms,'" The Tenneseesen reports.

“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.”

On Tuesday, Ragan addressed the board and the allegations against him.

“I’m flattered that you and they think I have that much power. I can’t do that by myself,” Ragan said during the meeting. “However, it is within the authority of the General Assembly, acting through the government operations committee, to dissolve them if we so desire.”

Although Ragan is a Republican, not all lawmakers in the party agree with the decision to rescind the policy. Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville, Tenn.) criticized the GOC for its attempt to insert itself into the efforts to control the spread of misinformation.

“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 said.

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