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Tennessee medical board deletes anti-misinformation COVID-19 policy after GOP pressures to dissolve board

Tennessee’s medical licensing board voted Tuesday to delete a policy opposing coronavirus misinformation from its website due to fears a powerful conservative lawmaker would otherwise dissolve the board and replace its members.

The policy, unanimously adopted by the Board of Medical Examiners in September, establishes that doctors who spread demonstrably untrue information about COVID-19 vaccines could have their licenses suspended or potentially revoked. Members voted 7 to 3 to delete — but not rescind — the policy.

The deletion was spurred by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, a co-chair of the Joint Government Operations Committee, who insisted board members don’t have the authority to create a new disciplinary offense without the approval of lawmakers on his committee.

Over the past two months, Ragan sent at least three letters pressuring the board to delete the policy or appear before the committee to explain itself. Ragan later made a “threat” to dissolve the board in behind-the-scenes discussions with the Department of Health, according to a letter from a department attorney obtained by The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Jennifer Putnam, an attorney who works with the board, warned board members that Ragan conveyed his “displeasure” with the misinformation policy “in the strongest terms.”

“Chairman Ragan also made clear he has no qualms above moving forward with dissolving the BME and reconstituting it with new members,” Putnam wrote. “He has in fact done this with another state agency, so it is not a hollow threat.”

Ragan said Tuesday that deleting the policy from the board’s website had functionally the same impact as rescinding it even if board members believed it did not. He said he did not recall specifically threatening to dissolve the board but confirmed he had a conversation with health department officials about the possibility.

Ragan said the Joint Government Operations Committee has the authority to “very seriously” recommend dissolution and he sets the agenda for the committee. A recommendation still must be approved by a majority of lawmakers, Ragan said.

“I’m flattered that you and they think I have that much power. I can’t do that by myself,” Ragan said Tuesday, before the board meeting. “However, it is within the authority of the General Assembly, acting through the government operations committee, to dissolve them if we so desire.”

Although board members deleted the policy to appease Ragan, they said they would not abandon its original purpose. Board President Dr. Melanie Blake opened the meeting by stating misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines had cost lives, health, jobs and “other incalculable losses in our society.”

When asked specifically by another board member of the board was voting to rescind the policy or merely remove it from a website, Blake confirmed it was the latter.

“Our mission remains unchanged,” Blake said.

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