TOPEKA, Kansas — Republicans in the Kansas Legislature are uniting behind a bill to stop the state’s medical board from disciplining physicians who prescribe unproven off-label drugs to COVID-19 patients.
In addition to explicitly authorizing the prescribing of off-label drugs to treat COVID-19, the measure requires pharmacists to dispense the drugs even if they have concerns about their safety.
Another amendment added Tuesday, just minutes before the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee endorsed the bill, would allow parents to claim religious exemptions to any vaccine requirements at schools and child care facilities.
Some opponents charged that the panel’s approval of the amendment with little debate and no hearings was orchestrated as part of a deal to secure Republican Sen. Mark Steffen’s vote to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a congressional redistricting plan.
“We see what happens when you get 24 hours and you get to make some backroom deals to get your way,” Senate Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes, from Lenexa, said after Steffen’s change of vote helped Senate Republicans override Kelly’s veto.
Steffen, a Hutchinson anesthesiologist is the main sponsor of the off-label drug bill. During an interview on KCMO Talk Radio, he said the bill was discussed during his negotiations with Senate leaders on redistricting.
Asked whether its fate was contingent on him voting to override the governor, Steffen said, “I don’t know if it was that blunt.”
“We came to a mutual agreement,” he said.
Steffen has confirmed that he is the target of an ongoing Kansas Board of Healing Arts investigation.
During a Jan. 26 hearing, Steffen said the inquiry is related to his public statements about COVID-19. He charged that the board was using the threat of disciplinary action to “silence me … as a state senator.”
Susan Gile, the board’s acting director, declined to talk about Steffen’s case, but told the Associated Press that the board has investigated 50 COVID-19 related complaints. She said 32 are ongoing.
Steffen said the legislation authorizing the use of off-label drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19 is unrelated to the investigation.
“The bill is about preventing suffering and death,” he said.
Several physicians who share Steffen’s belief about the effectiveness of some off-label COVID treatments testified in favor of the bill at the hearing in January.
However, the Food and Drug Administration continues to warn against their use. While ivermectin, primarily a veterinary drug, is approved to treat parasitic infections in humans, studies have so far shown it to be ineffective against COVID-19. Further, the FDA has said that taking “large doses of ivermectin is dangerous.”
Similarly, ongoing studies have not shown hydroxychloroquine to be safe and effective for treating COVID-19, according to a recent FDA bulletin.
Prior to Tuesday’s committee vote on the legislation, Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, charged that Republicans had manipulated the hearing schedule to deny opponents an opportunity to testify.
“This is a very dangerous bill,” Holscher said.
Made more dangerous, she said, by the vaccine exemption amendment, which would bar school administrators and child care providers from questioning parents who refuse for religious reasons to have their children vaccinated.
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, called the amendment “bad policy” because it covered all immunizations, not just COVID-19 vaccines.
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, said the amendment would simply broaden existing law. He said it would give children the same protection that legislation passed during the 2021 special session in December gives to unvaccinated adults in the workplace.
“It gives parents discretion as to whether or not they want their kids to take a vaccine that is actually dangerous,” Thompson said.
Studies have shown Thompson’s claim about safety to be false.
Studies released late last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that COVID-19 vaccines approved for children are safe and effective. Of the more than eight million children vaccinated in the two months covered by the study, only a little more than 4,000 reported adverse reactions. Of those, 97.6% were for mild symptoms such as redness around the injection site, fever and headaches.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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