A request that Alaska’s State Medical Board investigate physicians who prescribe unproven COVID-19 treatments or spread misinformation garnered hundreds of comments ahead of a meeting Friday.
But state officials say the law precludes the board from basing decisions on public opinion and it’s unlikely the board will take any action Friday beyond listening to testimony anyway.
Nearly 150 Alaska physicians signed a letter asking the board to investigate the conduct of local doctors who have publicly advocated for the use of COVID-19 treatments such as ivermectin during the latest and deadliest virus surge that’s only now beginning to subside.
Anchorage psychiatrist Merijeanne Moore drafted the letter because of concerns over an event about COVID-19 early treatments featuring prominent vaccine skeptics in Anchorage late last month. Two local doctors — Illona Farr and John Nolte — spoke at the summit, organized by a group calling itself Alaska Covid Alliance.
Once Moore’s letter surfaced, early treatment event organizers mounted their own campaign asking supporters to support the doctors and treatments like ivermectin in comments to the medical board.
The board received more than 600 written comments by a Wednesday afternoon deadline, according to Sara Chambers, director of the state Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing, which provides staffing for the medical board.
The comments include a letter from the Alaska Medical Association, which represents almost 500 physicians and physician assistants around the state.
“We support the Board in this effort and trust the Board stands behind the science and evidence based medicine practiced by the vast majority of physicians in Alaska,” states the letter signed by association president Dr. Janice Sheufelt.
Roughly 40 additional comments supported the board taking some action against doctors who provide or endorse unproven treatments.
But the majority voiced strong opposition to any intervention. Some reference their support for Farr or Nolte specifically.
Numerous comments referenced Alaska’s “Right to Try” legislation that allows terminally ill patients to gain faster access to experimental drugs.
Others called the censure request “medical tyranny” or a “witch hunt” motivated by monetary gain for hospitals. One commenter from Wasilla asked, “What exactly is wrong with you people ... Are you Nazis? ... Marxists? Who is paying you to force unethical actions against Alaskan doctors..? Big Pharma? CDC? FDA? Mark Zuckerberg? Bill Gates? The most Evil Man on the Planet — ‘Dr.’ Fauci?”
It’s unlikely the debate will see any resolution at the medical board this week, or any time soon.
According to Alaska Statute 08.64.326, the board can impose a sanction only if the board finds, after a hearing, that a licensee has demonstrated “professional incompetence, gross negligence, or repeated negligent conduct.”
“The board may not base a finding of professional incompetence solely on the basis that a licensee’s practice is unconventional or experimental in the absence of demonstrable physical harm to a patient,” statute says.
Sanctions can also be imposed if a doctor “has violated any code of ethics adopted by regulation by the board.”
The medical board’s process for investigating complaints against physicians is posted on a state website.
Only complaints filed against “a specific provider or providers” that include “adequate information to pursue an investigation of a violation of state law” are pursued, Chambers said in an email. Details of investigations are not publicly available until the board makes a final decision.
The board will be opening up an hour of spoken testimony early Friday afternoon, Chambers said. An initial plan was to allow each person registered an opportunity to speak, but because 90 people registered to provide public comments, “the board opted to take a new approach.”
She added that during Friday’s meeting, the board will be “listening only,” and “will not be addressing matters related to the treatment of COVID-19 during Friday’s meeting, as this topic is not on the board’s very full agenda,” Chambers said.
“While the board may choose to dedicate time for a discussion and formally adopt a position statement at a later date, no discussion or decision has been made on this matter,” she added.
Comments received after the deadline will be provided to board members after the meeting.
The Alaska State Medical Board is made up of eight members appointed by the governor, including five physicians, a physician assistant and two people with no direct financial interest in the health care industry.
According to an online roster, two positions are currently vacant and all current members were appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The Federation of State Medical Boards has said that physicians who spread COVID-19 misinformation risk jeopardizing their medical license or facing other disciplinary actions from state medical boards, adding that sharing inaccurate vaccine information “threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk.”
The Alaska Board of Nursing, Board of Dental Examiners, and the Board of Pharmacy last month issued a statement in support of COVID-19 vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and remdesivir.
“Though studies of potential treatments are ongoing, use of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine has not been approved by the FDA for use in treatment of COVID-19,” the statement says.
The boards recommend filling any prescriptions at legitimate sources like pharmacies, warn prescriptions may not be filled, and advise against using medications intended for animals such as ivermectin, where dosages for animals are very different from those for humans.
Ivermectin, which is federally approved to treat parasites in humans but not COVID-19, has been linked to multiple cases of hospitalizations and some deaths, as some turn to veterinary formulations or dangerously high dosing.