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

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — 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 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, a city of 40,000 residents about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Wichita.

The board has so far opened investigations of 50 people related to COVID-19, 32 of which remain open, said Susan Gile, its acting executive director. She said investigations are opened in response to complaints. Some conservatives want to block the board’s investigations of doctors accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19.

Steffen participated in the Senate committee’s debate Tuesday despite his personal stake in the legislation. Anti-vaccine activists packed the small hearing room and applauded loudly after its vote.

Supporters of the measure argued that they are protecting patients’ and parents’ rights. Steffen and Thompson falsely asserted that COVID-19 vaccines and childhood immunizations are unsafe.

Under the bill, a school or day care could not investigate the beliefs of a parent who claimed religious exemptions from any vaccine mandate. 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.

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.

But Marcus Baltzell, a lobbyist for Kansas’ largest teachers union, said the measure would make schools less safe.

As for ivermectin, Steffen has said he’s tried to write prescriptions but cannot get pharmacists to fill them.

Kansas law allows doctors to write prescriptions for off-label uses, but the state medical board still requires doctors to do “what a reasonable physician would have done under the same or similar circumstance.”

Pharmacists can refuse to fill any prescription based on their professional judgment. 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.

Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at University of Kansas Health System, said the measure suggests that if a patient asks for something a doctor must give it to them.

“That’s just wrong,” Stites said on a morning video briefing. “Your kid walks up and says, ‘Mom, Dad, I want a cookie. You have to give it to me.’ The kid doesn’t know if it’s good for him or not, right?”

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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John Hanna
John Hanna
Kansas government and politics reporter