From questioning vaccines to touting unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, a small number of doctors have established themselves as some of the highest-profile purveyors of false information on COVID-19. But state medical boards have so far taken few steps to remove the credentials that make them seem like authoritative sources, critics say.
Take Simone Gold, an emergency room doctor from Beverly Hills who founded America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that has filed lawsuits to block the authorization of COVID vaccines for children and overturn vaccine mandates. In a speech in Florida posted online in January, Gold claimed that the “so-called” vaccine “actually changes nothing,” adding: “The people who die from COVID-19 are people who are kinda destined to die in this period anyway.”
Gold has a license to practice medicine in California with no disciplinary actions on her record.
Peter McCullough, a Texas cardiologist and prominent supporter of hydroxychloroquine, claimed before the Texas Senate in March that those below age 50 and previously infected people don’t need to be vaccinated, defying CDC recommendations. His former employer this month obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent him from using his prior affiliation at the Baylor College of Medicine in media and other appearances. His Texas medical license remains clear. McCullough declined to comment.
State medical boards can suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors who endanger public health. And the Federation of State Medical Boards — the national umbrella organization for such regulators — said in July that “physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action.”
But as around 2,000 mostly unvaccinated Americans die of COVID-19 every day, BuzzFeed News could not find a single example of a doctor who has been disciplined to date for spreading vaccine disinformation. Overall, after reviewing news reports, state medical board websites, and legal filings, we found just a handful of medical board investigations for any COVID-related violations, and one instance where a doctor’s license was revoked for failing to comply with a mask mandate.
The dearth of COVID-related actions may reflect the glacial progress of medical board investigations, which can take many months and sometimes years to proceed from an initial complaint to a final action. It can also be hard to determine when a doctor’s pattern of drug prescribing represents a danger to patients.
“We see the victims of disinformation campaigns that come into our emergency departments.”
Enough is enough, say public health advocates. No License for Disinformation, a newly formed group of physicians, parents, and disability advocates, is filing complaints with state medical boards against doctors who, they say, have spread false COVID statements. The group is encouraging the public to do the same. “Everyone has the right to an opinion,” No License for Disinformation states on its website. “Doctors, however, are bound by an ethical and legal obligation to do no harm.”
“We see the effects of disinformation firsthand because we see the victims of disinformation campaigns that come into our emergency departments,” Taylor Nichols, an emergency room doctor in Sacramento and one of the founders of No License for Disinformation, told BuzzFeed News. “This is personal for me.”
Targets include Gold and other physicians associated with America’s Frontline Doctors. This group made national headlines in July 2020 when, clad in white coats, they held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court building and declared hydroxychloroquine to be a COVID “cure.” On its website, America’s Frontline Doctors charges $90 for telemedicine consultations with physicians “trained” by the group and who are prepared to prescribe hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, neither of which is proven to treat or prevent COVID.
People have spent at least $15 million on medications and consultations combined, according to hacked data obtained by the Intercept. (America’s Frontline Doctors didn’t comment on those numbers but said it had launched a “third-party audit” of the hack.)
“That is a group consistently in violation of ethical and moral standards for physicians,” Nichols said.
Gold, the leader of America’s Frontline Doctors, has been indicted for entering the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Joseph Ladapo, another founder, was described around the launch as the group’s policy liaison and was until recently an associate professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Just last week, Ladapo was nominated by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the state’s next surgeon general and immediately vowed to oppose vaccine mandates. Earlier this month, he was issued a brand-new Florida medical license.
Ladapo did not respond to requests for comment.
Gold previously told the Washington Post that she regretted entering the US Capitol on Jan. 6. She did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Instead, her lawyer, Steven Biss, sent a “cease and desist” letter describing No License for Disinformation’s campaign as “false and defamatory.”
“She has clinically managed many COVID-19 patients, including intubations and managing intubated patients and patients who have died,” Biss added. “America’s Frontline Doctors is a civil rights organization — it is each person’s choice to take the vaccine or not — Dr. Gold and her colleagues vehemently oppose mandates."
America’s Frontline Doctors has rejected calls for disciplinary action. “Decertification for speaking out in favor of early outpatient treatment of COVID-19, or calling into question the monolithic vaccine narrative, is a gross abuse of authority and will generate a strong legal response,” its associate medical director, Richard Amerling, said in a statement posted on the group’s website earlier this month.
One big obstacle to bringing disciplinary action is that physicians have broad discretion to practice medicine guided by their own expertise — especially when it comes to writing prescriptions. If a drug is approved by the FDA for one purpose, it can legally be prescribed “off label” for other conditions if a doctor judges it to be medically appropriate. Indeed, about 1 in 5 prescriptions written in the US are thought to be for off-label use.
Hydroxychloroquine is approved for malaria and autoimmune diseases including lupus, while ivermectin is approved to treat parasitic worms, head lice, and rosacea. The FDA did issue an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for severe COVID in March 2020, but revoked it three months later after studies indicated the drug was ineffective and could cause heart problems. The agency now specifically warns against using either hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19.
Prescriptions for both drugs have surged during the pandemic. The rush for hydroxychloroquine last year had consequences for people like Abby Mahler, a lupus patient and cofounder of No License for Disinformation. “It’s a slow, personal, invisible violence,” Mahler, a Los Angeles–based photographer, said of the shortages and price hikes.
Neither the Federation of State Medical Boards nor professional medical specialty bodies that have threatened to remove certifications of expertise if doctors spread COVID-related vaccine disinformation have weighed in on whether doctors should be punished for off-label COVID prescribing.
Warren Newton, president of the American Board of Family Medicine, acknowledged that he believes ivermectin is ineffective. “But ivermectin is not the cause of the public health emergency right now,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I really want to focus on vaccination.”
There has been at least one attempt, apparently unsuccessful, to discipline a doctor over their use of hydroxychloroquine. Richard Urso, a Houston-area ophthalmologist and another cofounder of America’s Frontline Doctors, claimed last year he was facing complaints over his use of the drug. In October 2020, the conservative news outlet the Texan obtained a letter stating that Urso had been cleared by the Texas Medical Board because “there was insufficient evidence to prove that a violation of the Medical Practice Act occurred.” It didn’t mention hydroxychloroquine, but it specified that Urso was found to be “appropriate in his care and treatment” of three anonymous patients.
Urso did not respond to queries from BuzzFeed News. The Texas Medical Board said it could not comment, as investigations of complaints are confidential unless it issues a formal accusation.
Neither that regulator nor the state’s pharmacy board has shown much interest in cracking down on off-label prescribing for COVID since then. Earlier this month, the two regulators said that “drugs are permitted to be prescribed off-label” and that “it is the professional judgement of each physician to write their prescriptions.” The statement was issued in response to media queries about doctors administering ivermectin in Texas, which has the highest rate of prescriptions for the drug in the nation, according to a June CDC analysis.
In contrast, some state medical boards are investigating doctors for off-label COVID prescribing. In Washington state, regulators have opened 22 investigations into doctors triggered by complaints about their use of ivermectin, spokesperson Stephanie Mason told BuzzFeed News.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Washington Medical Commission specifically warned doctors in that state that ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are not approved for treating COVID-19. “Treatments and recommendations regarding this disease that fall below standard of care as established by medical experts, federal authorities and legitimate medical research are potentially subject to disciplinary action,” the regulator said.
In Arkansas, the state medical board opened an investigation into Robert Karas, a doctor in Fayetteville, following reports he had used ivermectin to treat inmates with COVID in the Washington County jail. “Those were my professional opinions based on my 20 plus years of experience and review of the literature through the years,” Karas wrote to the board in response to two complaints it received.
“I am on the front line of trying to prevent death and serious illness,” Karas told BuzzFeed News by email. He said that he was “proud of our track record in both of my clinics and at the jail in particular.”
The most high-profile sanction handed down so far, from the Oregon Medical Board, relates to a doctor in Dallas, Oregon, who told patients that masks were ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and refused to wear a mask in the clinic himself. Earlier this month, the board revoked Steven LaTulippe’s medical license and fined him $10,000.
LaTulippe is now requesting a judicial review of his license revocation. He told BuzzFeed News that he was traveling out of state when the board wrote to notify him of its intent to revoke his license, and he did not have an opportunity to respond. “They are making an example of me,” he said. “They have totally trashed my reputation.”
LaTulippe, who is associated with America’s Frontline Doctors, is also suing the Oregon Medical Board in federal court, claiming its initial suspension of his license, back in December, violated his rights to due process and free speech.
At least one other physician involved with America’s Frontline Doctors has faced disciplinary action for non-COVID aspects of her medical practice. Kathleen Cullen, who has written blog posts for the organization’s website and is listed as a “medical contributor,” is based in Seminole, Florida, but practices in other states via telemedicine.
In January, the Medical Licensure Commission of Alabama put Cullen’s license to practice in the state under probation, issued a reprimand, and fined her $10,000 for her involvement with a telemedicine company. Its founder was last year charged with federal healthcare fraud over unnecessary genetic cancer screening tests. The commission noted that it was unclear whether Cullen herself had committed fraud or whether she was an unwitting accessory.
On America’s Frontline Doctors’ website, Cullen has described how she prescribed hydroxychloroquine as a COVID preventative to her husband and children. No state medical board has disciplined Cullen for her practice in treating COVID. Cullen did not return requests for comment.
In California, at least, many patients are voicing their unhappiness about doctors’ COVID practices. As of Sept. 9, the Medical Board of California had received more than 1,000 COVID-related complaints. More than half were outside the board’s jurisdiction, but the complaints included 267 allegations of unprofessional conduct by doctors, 159 complaints of gross negligence or incompetence, 15 related to health and safety, and 3 claiming fraud. The board did not provide further details.
One California doctor has already faced federal criminal charges over a COVID-related offense dating from the early days of the pandemic. In July, Jennings Staley pleaded guilty to a customs violation in importing from China what he believed to be hydroxychloroquine, but was actually baking soda falsely labeled as “yam extract.” Staley was marketing the drug as a treatment for COVID-19 from his Skinny Beach Med Spas in the San Diego area.
Staley described hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle cure” to an undercover federal agent, but his lawyer, Patrick Griffin, said the incident occurred before scientists had worked out that the drug was not effective. “We have to view it from what we knew at the end of March, the beginning of April 2020,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Griffin added that Staley had been notified that the California medical board is looking into his case, but no action has yet been taken against his license.
And in January, Thomas Cowan, a doctor in San Francisco, surrendered his California medical license, several months after he went viral on YouTube for falsely claiming that COVID was caused by 5G telecommunications. He had already been placed on probation for five years in 2017 over his treatment of a patient with breast cancer with an unapproved drug.
A message on the website of his former practice says it closed in June 2020, noting that Cowan would relinquish his license and “re-emerge as an unlicensed ‘health coach’ or consultant.” Cowan, who is now living in upstate New York, told BuzzFeed News that the decision to surrender his license “was a completely voluntary action on my part.”
Asked about his views on COVID, Cowan responded with a scientifically unfounded claim: “There is no proof of any virus causing any human disease.”
The fact that the medical board in the nation’s most populous state has yet to revoke any doctor’s license over COVID disinformation, even though some of the most prominent voices in America’s Frontline Doctors are in California, demonstrates the need for more urgency, according to the founders of No License for Disinformation.
“I don’t think any of us would want to imply that physicians should not be granted due process,” said Nichols, the emergency room doctor in Sacramento. But he wants medical boards to start using their powers to temporarily suspend licenses while investigating doctors who are allegedly endangering the public.
The Oregon board took this step in LaTulippe’s case. And last week, the Connecticut Medical Examining Board suspended the license of Sue McIntosh, a doctor in Durham, Connecticut, when it filed charges alleging that she provided waivers for masking, vaccination, and COVID testing, without examining a patient.
Documents from the case reveal that she provided the waivers to an investigator who approached her by mail following an anonymous tip. She sent them with a cover note that ended: “Let freedom ring!”
“The suspension of her license should serve as a warning to other practitioners that this conduct deviates from the standard of care and is subject to serious discipline,” said Manisha Juthani, Connecticut Department of Public Health commissioner, in a statement.
McIntosh did not respond to requests for comment.
Carlos Villatoro, a spokesperson for the Medical Board of California, told BuzzFeed News by email that the state’s law sets a high bar for emergency license suspensions, requiring the board to petition a judge with evidence of “imminent danger” to patients. A formal charge must then be filed within 30 days, he added, making it hard to conduct a thorough investigation in the required timeframe.
“The Board’s mission is consumer protection and it takes that mission very seriously,” Villatoro said.
The Federation of State Medical Boards is now surveying its member organizations to find out what actions they are taking against doctors spreading false or misleading COVID information. It expects to have answers by November.
“Doctors who engage in propagating myths are not a new phenomenon,” the federation’s president, Humayun Chaudhry, told BuzzFeed News. “But this pandemic changes everything. It is crucial that we are doing what we can with the levers that we have.” ●