Senate narrowly adopts bill affirming access to off-label drugs for COVID-19

Critics object to weakening state’s child immunization programs

By: - March 24, 2022 12:24 pm
Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson anesthesiologist under investigation by state regulators for his conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic, voted for a bill passed by the Senate opening the door wider to off-label use of drugs to prevent or treat coronavirus. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson anesthesiologist under investigation by state regulators for his conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic, voted for a bill passed by the Senate opening the door wider to off-label use of drugs to prevent or treat coronavirus. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas state senator among health professionals investigated by the Board of Healing Arts for alleged misconduct during the COVID-19 pandemic voted early Thursday for legislation to legalize the prescribing by physicians and dispensing by pharmacists of medication for off-label use against the coronavirus.

The bill adopted by the Senate on a vote of 21-16 would mandate child care facilities and K-12 public schools to accept — without inquiry or scrutiny — the religious objection of parents or guardians to vaccination of their children against a collection of maladies.

Steffen, a Republican from Hutchinson and licensed anesthesiologist, had introduced legislation that would retroactively shield him and other health providers who prescribed ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine during the pandemic from investigation by regulators with the Kansas Board of Healing Arts.

In January, Steffen said he was under investigation by the BOHA. He has asserted doctors shouldn’t be limited in the range of potential treatment options in a pandemic associated with more than 8,000 deaths and 19,000 hospitalizations in Kansans.

“Thousands of Kansans and hundreds of thousands of Americans have died needlessly because mainstream academic medicine’s shutdown of effective treatment protocols,” Steffen said. “This fearful, greedy, political and incompetent shutdown of early treatment will be deemed a national tragedy in time.”

Steffen has waged a protracted war of words with public health officials and medical professionals who expressed reservations about alternative treatment of COVID-19. University of Kansas Health System submitted testimony opposing the legislation on behalf of Ascension Via Christi Health and University of Kansas physicians.

Sen. Kristen O'Shea, a Topeka Republican who periodically brings her young baby to the Senate floor, voted against a bill undermining the state's child immunization programs by undoing "proven medical advances that generations before us invested in." (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican who periodically brings her young child to the Senate floor, voted against a bill undermining the state’s child immunization programs by undoing “proven medical advances that generations before us invested in.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The retroactive provision sought by Steffen, viewed as a conflict of interest for him, was removed from the bill sent to the House. The measure would enable Kansas physicians to prescribe drugs, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for off-label or alternative use to prevent or treat COVID-19 infection. Both hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin were listed as eligible under the bill, which otherwise limited doctors addressing coronavirus only when it came to prescribing controlled substances.

The Senate bill also was controversial because it would amend state law to prohibit pharmacists from refusing to fill or refill prescriptions for medications based solely on knowledge or assumption the drug would be used by a patient for treatment of COVID-19.

Under one hypothetical example, a Senate opponent of the bill said the legislation could require a pharmacist to fill a prescription for an abortion pill even if that pharmacist had a religious objection to abortion.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs, said about 20% of prescriptions were for off-label use. He said doctors shouldn’t be investigated by the Board of Healing Arts for what they did in response to COVID-19. He said it was comparable to a person driving 24 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone — there’s nothing for law enforcement to investigate because there was no infraction.

“I have hundreds of letters from pharmacists that are not supportive of this bill,” said Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas who voted against the bill.

Shawnee Republican Sen. Mike Thompson, a former television weather forecaster who joined Steffen last year at an anti-vaccination forum in Johnson County, said he personally knew people who covertly took medicines into hospitals to give to people seriously ill with COVID-19. It wasn’t clear what drugs were trafficked into hospitals that Thompson said were able to help “people survive.”

“They work,” he said. “They’re useful.”

In addition, the Senate legislation would exempt children and students enrolling in child care facilities, preschools, day care centers or K-12 public schools from immunizations required by the secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The exemption, advocates said, was necessary to prevent those facilities from trampling a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs. In Kansas, individuals can secure vaccination exemptions from schools and other facilities.

“No one will give you a litmus test,” said Hilderbrand, who carried the bill on the Senate floor. “Nobody has the right to question your religion.”

The definition of religious belief was broadly stated in the bill to include “theistic and non-theistic moral and ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.”

Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, supported a bill authorizing physicians and pharmacists to meet patient demand for off-label drugs in the COVID-19 pandemic and said he knew of people who secretly brought medications into hospitals to help COVID-19 patients. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, supported a bill authorizing physicians and pharmacists to meet patient demand for off-label drugs in the COVID-19 pandemic and said he knew of people who secretly brought medications into hospitals to help COVID-19 patients. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican who recently gave birth, said she ran for the Senate in part to make certain government didn’t harm small businesses during the next public health emergency. She joined four other Republicans and 11 Democrats in voting against the bill.

She said the duty to wisely govern during crisis “should not be used as a vehicle to undo the proven medical advances that generations before us have invested in.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said physicians and pharmacists had authority to make available to patients off-label medicines, but those health professionals understood they would be subject to consequences of their actions. She said a Kansas pharmacist questioning the Senate bill indicated a physician wrote a prescription for 18 times the recommended dose of ivermectin — a potentially lethal dose.

Holscher said the Senate bill was “dangerous” because it unraveled proven methods of disease control through immunization programs among children in Kansas.

In other action before adjourning the late-night session, the Senate approved 24-15 a bill stripping the KDHE secretary of authority to take action to prevent infectious or contagious diseases. Instead, KDHE would submit a report to the Senate president and House speaker recommending rules or regulations in response to public health emergencies. In addition, the bill would strip local health officials of power to prohibit public gatherings or require isolation or quarantining of infected individuals.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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