GOP bills want to protect doctors using treatments not intended for COVID-19. Wisconsin’s largest physician group is opposed.

Chair of the Wisconsin Medical Society Board of Directors says the package of 'medical freedom' bills undermine basic safeguards of care

A syringe of ivermectin, a drug used to kill worms and other parasites
A syringe of ivermectin — a drug used to kill worms and other parasites — intended for use in horses only, is shown Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in Olympia, Wash. Health experts and medical groups are pushing to stamp out the growing use of the parasite drug to treat COVID-19, warning that it can cause harmful side effects and that there’s little evidence it helps. Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

GOP lawmakers introduced bills Wednesday that would shield doctors from potential discipline for certain pandemic advice and treatments. The authors say their proposals would ensure “medical freedom,” but a major medical group says they undermine basic safeguards of care.

One of the bills would prevent health systems and state regulators from discriminating against doctors who use therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration for medical conditions other than what the drug is approved for.

This includes the antiparasitic drug ivermectin, which has been promoted by conservative politicians — and podcast host Joe Rogan — as a treatment for COVID-19. Now, state Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Gibson, is proposing legislation that would prevent employers and credentialing boards in Wisconsin from taking action against doctors who prescribe it.

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“We don’t need group-think. We need doctors to be able to be doctors,” Sortwell said at state Capitol press conference with Reps. Chuck Wichgers, R-Muskego; Clint Moses, R-Menomonie; and Dave Murphy, R-Greenville.

In August, the CDC put out a health alert cautioning people not to use the drug to treat or prevent COVID-19. But many people are, and a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates health insurance companies may be spending millions to fill a significant increase in ivermectin prescriptions.

The chair of the Wisconsin Medical Society Board of Directors, Dr. Jerry Halverson, says the package of bills isn’t needed.

“As the state’s largest physician organization, we very carefully listen to our members to make sure there’s no undue interference with a physician providing appropriate care for their patients,” Halverson said in a statement. “There is an ever-evolving body of accepted COVID‐19 science helping physicians treat and counsel their patients, and we have not heard concerns about regulatory boards, health care entities or pharmacies stifling these appropriate physician‐patient interactions.”

Another bill would prohibit any examining board or affiliated credentialing board in the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services from taking action against a health care provider for expressing his or her professional opinion.

In a November newsletter, the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board featured a column by the board’s chair, Sheldon Wasserman, that sought to address pandemic misinformation, advising doctors that guidelines promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should serve as the primary guide in treating patients.

“The Board is prepared to use its authority to act in instances of deliberate, negligent, or reckless misinformation that rise to the level of professional misconduct,” the column by Wasserman reads. “In no way does the Board intend to interfere with the ability of individual physicians to treat their patients according to their own sound judgment, nor does the Board intend to stifle legitimate scientific discussion. As always, the Board’s sole agenda remains the protection of the health and safety of the citizens of Wisconsin.”

One bill being proposed by Rep. Murphy would expand the duty of pharmacists to dispense any lawfully prescribed drug without delay.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Green Bay doctor Daniel Koster said his patients are not getting treatment he believes they should have.

“I have, for the first time in the past year, had prescriptions denied by a pharmacist without any good reason,” Koster said.

Another doctor attending the press conference in support of the bills said he got a prescription for ivermectin from his personal physician but wasn’t immediately able to fill it because he was turned down at two area pharmacy chains.

“For some reason, pharmacists are not willing to fill it, and they’re comfortable in not filling it,” Dr. Steven Birkholz said. “(It) used to be no pharmacist would deny you or you’d talk to the manager and they’d be in trouble.”

Birkholz eventually got his prescription for ivermectin filled but never used it because he didn’t get infected with COVID-19. He said he was vaccinated against COVID-19 but wanted additional protection while visiting vulnerable friends and family over the holiday.