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Anti-vax, pro-ivermectin measures advance in Kansas Senate

Stephen Koranda

The proposed bills would protect doctors who pursue potentially dangerous treatments for COVID-19 and weaken state childhood vaccination requirements.

TOPEKA — Fellow Republican conservatives rallied Tuesday behind a Kansas physician-legislator who's under investigation by the state medical board, advancing his measures to protect doctors pursuing potentially dangerous treatments for COVID-19 and to weaken childhood vaccination requirements.

As a Senate health committee member, state Sen. Mark Steffen successfully pushed a proposal that would require pharmacists to fill prescriptions of the anti-worm medication ivermectin, the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and other drugs for off-label uses as COVID-19 treatments. Steffen is among the Republican-controlled Legislature's biggest vaccine skeptics and a critic of how the federal government and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly have handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Steffen also successfully persuaded the Republican-dominated committee to add a proposal to make it easy for parents to claim religious exemptions from vaccine requirements at schools and day cares. Kansas requires children to be vaccinated against more than a dozen diseases — including polio and measles.

The bill goes next to the Senate. The health committee's actions showed that fringe anti-vaccine activists have gained significant influence with GOP lawmakers.

“This is a very dangerous bill,” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Kansas City-area Democrat. “It was dangerous before. It's even more dangerous now.”

Steffen disclosed during a committee hearing last month that the State Board of Healing Arts has been investigating him since the summer of 2020 over his public statements about COVID-19. He has said the investigation is not about his care for patients as an anesthesiologist and pain-management specialist from Hutchinson. He also has suggested the investigation is designed to intimidate him.

The board has so far opened investigations of 50 people related to COVID-19, and 32 of those remain open, said Susan Gile, its acting executive director. She said investigations are opened in response to complaints.

“The investigation itself is objective and serves as fact-gathering,” she said in an email.

Some GOP conservatives want to block the board's investigations of doctors accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Steffen was an active participant in the Senate committee's debate Tuesday despite his personal stake in the legislation.

Anti-vaccine activists packed the Senate committee's small hearing room and applauded loudly after its vote. Supporters of the measure argued that they are protecting patients' and parents' rights.

Under the bill, if parents claimed religious exemptions from any vaccine mandate, the school or day care would not be allowed to investigate their beliefs. That mirrors a law enacted in November for workers seeking to avoid federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“All we're doing is reaffirming the people's religious rights,” said Sen. Mike Thompson, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.

But Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said public school districts generally don't investigate people's beliefs and he's not aware of a large number of religious exemptions being denied.

Steffen and Thompson also falsely asserted that COVID-19 vaccines and childhood immunizations are unsafe. Steffen has said he's tried to write ivermectin prescriptions but cannot get pharmacists to fill them.

Kansas law allows doctors to write prescriptions for off-label uses of drugs, but the state medical board still requires doctors to do “what a reasonable physician would have done under the same or similar circumstance.” Also, pharmacists can refuse to fill any prescription based on their professional judgment. Medical groups and state officials say off-label uses account for roughly 20% of prescriptions filled in Kansas.

Under the bill Steffen favors, pharmacists could face disciplinary action or lawsuits for failing to fill off-label prescriptions of ivermectin to treat COVID-19.

While medical groups and health experts have worked to stamp out the use of ivermectin for treating COVID-19, hospitals around the nation have faced lawsuits over their refusal to give it to patients.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved ivermectin to treat infections of lice, roundworms and other tiny parasites in humans. The FDA has tried to debunk claims that animal-strength versions of the drug can help fight COVID-19, warning that large doses can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, delirium and even death.

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