Kansas senator wins support for off-label drug use, vaccine exemptions for children

Democrat opposed to the bill argues new amendments make it ‘more dangerous’

By: - February 8, 2022 12:12 pm

Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, says the Senate panel’s decision to advance legislation dealing with off-label drug use and vaccine exemptions is “a step forward” in helping citizens and protecting children.(Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Sen. Mark Steffen succeeded Tuesday in persuading Republicans on a health panel to advance legislation that would clear him from punishment by state regulators for prescribing ivermectin to COVID-19 patients.

The Hutchinson Republican and anesthesiologist revealed last month he was under investigation by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts. He proposed legislation that would block the board from taking action against doctors who prescribe ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine for off-label uses.

Steffen amended and expanded the bill during committee action Tuesday to give doctors free range to use any drug for COVID-19 treatment and require pharmacists to fill the prescription, while removing protections for both doctors and pharmacists from civil liability if patients are harmed by the treatment. Lawmakers also added language from another of Steffen’s bills that would allow children to opt out of any kind of vaccine requirement at day care facilities and schools without being questioned.

The GOP-led panel then gutted a House bill that dealt with pharmacy regulations, inserted the Steffen bills and advanced it on a voice vote to the full Senate.

“We are moving a bill forward that decreases suffering and death,” Steffen told reporters after the hearing. “We’re moving a bill forward that allows the true standard of care in the early treatment of COVID to reign supreme. This notion that doing nothing is the standard of care is false, inappropriate and has led to crimes against humanity. The bottom line is we took a step forward in helping our Kansas citizens today and protecting our children.”

Steffen said he had not heard anything from the Board of Healing Arts since announcing Jan. 26 he had been under investigation for more than a year.

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, says the legislation advanced during a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee is dangerous. The stack of papers, she says, represents “nearly half” of complaints she has received about the off-label drug use bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

More than 40 people attended the standing-room-only hearing, in addition to journalists and legislative staff members. Many of the observers were affiliated with a prominent anti-vaccination group and held signs supporting Senate Bill 381.

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said the committee provided little notice to opponents of Steffen’s bill, then justified moving forward because there was little opposition. She presented a stack of pages that represented “nearly half” of the complaints about the bill she has received in recent days.

“This is a very dangerous bill,” Holscher said. “It was dangerous before. It’s even more dangerous now with what’s been done.”

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican who serves as chairman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, stopped Holscher from making further comments and accused her of misreading the bill.

“The crutch [sic] of the underlying bill was that the Board of Healing Arts were investigating doctors for prescribing off-label drugs, and the Board of Pharmacy was coming down on some pharmacists for filling off-label drugs in this case,” Hilderbrand said. “That is the crutch [sic]. There is nothing dubious or life-threatening in these bills.”

Loretta Touslee, of Baldwin City, shows her support for legislation allowing off-label drug use during a hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The two Democrats on the committee, Holscher and Sen. Pat Pettey, of Kansas City, and Republican Sen. Kristen O’Shea, of Topeka, objected to considering Senate Bill 398, dealing with vaccination requirements, before holding a hearing on the matter.

The bill applies language passed during a special session in November, when the Legislature responded to federal vaccine requirements for workers, to expand the application of religious exemptions. The proposal makes it illegal for a school or day care facility to question the sincerity of a child’s religious beliefs.

“This is not just COVID-19 vaccine — it’s all childhood vaccinations,” O’Shea said. “And for us to not even have time to fully read the bill and be asked to vote on it is bad policy.”

Hilderbrand defended the process of combining two bills and inserting them into House Bill 2280.

“For those of you listening online that are getting an impression that this is something unique in committees, it is not,” Hilderbrand said. “This is something done every session. This just happens to be on this certain bill. So I don’t want you to be misled that this is something unique.”

Sen. Pat Pettey, left, confers with Sen. Kristen O’Shea during Tuesday’s hearing about an off-label drug use bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said the legislation simply reaffirms religious rights already enshrined in the state constitution. He then repeated his false claims that vaccines are harmful and that COVID-19 poses no threat to children.

“It gives parents discretion as to whether or not they want their kid to take a vaccine that is actually dangerous, and has been proven to be so,” Thompson said. “These kids are not at risk.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s latest summary of Kansas deaths attributed to COVID-19 included four fatalities among children 0-9 years of age and three fatalities among youth aged 10 to 17.

Thompson also said it was important to “get these people these medicines and give these doctors the latitude they need, because this is the final nail in the coffin.”

Federal regulators and the vast majority of physicians agree there is no benefit to treating COVID-19 with ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, and that the drugs could be harmful in some cases.

Pettey said the discussion demonstrated a need to hold a hearing on the religious exemption component.

“We are talking about vaccinations of our children, and we’re talking about the safety of all, and we’re not talking about religion,” Pettey said. “So I think it’s important that we keep it in the right context.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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