‘Medical fascism’ or public safety? Lawmakers endure angry public during COVID misinformation bill hearing

A bill aiming to give the California Medical Board authority to revoke the licenses of physicians who have disseminated COVID-19 misinformation to patients cleared its most recent hurdle in committee this week. The Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee ultimately passed the controversial bill 9-4, but only after sitting through dozens of opposing testimonies from the public.

Despite repeated reminders from committee members to limit their testimony to just their name, organization, and position on the bill, many opposing testifiers used strong language like “witch hunt” and “medical fascism” to describe the legislation.

 

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“You love to cut the phone lines, but you will never silence the people,” said one unnamed testifier.

“The people pay your salary, and we’re not going to stand for this medical fascism. We’ve had enough of it,” said another.

Proponents of the bill, including the California Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics California, argue it’s needed to stop patients from being harmed by nonfactual claims about COVID from their physicians. Opponents, including Californians for Good Governance and the Pacific Justice Institute, call it governmental overreach and claim it restricts the free speech of physicians.

It passed the full Assembly with a vote of 53-20 in late May following similar vocal opposition in the chamber.

“The first amendment does not allow broad, content-based restrictions on speech, even if that speech is false, even if the intent of the law is compelling,” testified Laura Powell from Californians for Good Governance during this week’s hearing.

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, Chief of Medical Ethics for the Unity Project, testified against the bill saying it would cause physicians to leave the state rather than practice under the law, exacerbating the existing physician shortage.

Sen. Melissa Melendez (R – Palm Springs) echoed the opposing testimonials and questioned how the state’s medical board would determine if given speech had “malicious intent” or not, saying half of its membership is lawyers who don’t have the necessary medical expertise. 

Nick Sawyer, Executive Director of the organization “No License for Disinformation,” emphasized during his remarks that the type of speech the bill is targeting wouldn’t be particularly difficult for board members to identify as disinformation or misinformation. As a practicing emergency physician, he cited some examples.

“This bill will allow the medical board to discipline doctors who say things like, ‘The vaccines cause AIDS,’ or that the vaccines are killing more patients than COVID, using manipulated data. Or, that the vaccines are implanting microchips so the government can track you,” Sawyer said.

He added that the board has up to 8 physician members, who would be able to “tell the difference between academic debate and things that are just patently and verifiably false.”

Sawyer also addressed the claim that the bill would limit academic debate, which opponents argue is necessary to advance the medical profession.

“This bill is not supposed to cause problems with physicians’ free speech around academic discussion,” he said. “I’m all for academic debate. In fact, we wouldn’t be where we are without robust academic debate. That’s not what this is about.”

Another concern brought up by both opposing testifiers and Melendez was how the bill would account for changing science. For instance, if medical advice from a physician was deemed “disinformation” one day, but in the future was determined to be effective, that physician could unjustly lose their license.

“I’m envisioning a situation where we have treatments today, but then two months from now, there’s something [where] we discovered, ‘You know what, this actually works,’” Melendez said. “But as a physician, you’ve already been reprimanded and punished, perhaps, because you gave your patients information that, by yesterday’s standards, were deemed to be malicious and just not good medical science.”

“Somebody’s career is on the line here,” she said. “[There are] certain instances where it seems pretty obvious, but in other instances, it may not be that obvious. And I have great concern about that.”

During his testimony, Sen. Richard Pan (D – Sacramento), a pediatrician himself, noted that the World Health Organization and the US Surgeon General have identified misinformation as a public health crisis.

Addressing Melendez’s argument, he said, “I don’t see any physician being punished for bringing up a treatment where there’s actually good scientific evidence to show that it either works or even potentially could work.”

Bill sponsor Asm. Evan Low (D – Saratoga) also highlighted the significance of having major medical organizations endorsing the bill.

“It’s not often times that you would see the California Medical Association in support of a legislative proposal that could further empower the board to reprimand its own members, but in doing so, [they are] helping to ensure the integrity and the standards of care in protecting all Californians,” Low said.

Low also noted that he is still in negotiations with stakeholders about how the medical board would determine if certain medical advice is considered “misinformation” or to have “malicious intent,” but remains hopeful about coming to an agreement. For now, the bill heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee prior to reaching its final vote on the Senate floor.