California doctors could lose licenses for spreading unapproved COVID-19 info

California doctors who spread misinformation about COVID-19 could be subject to discipline by state medical boards, even risk losing their licenses, under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Updated: October 3, 2022 - 11:04pm

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California doctors who spread misinformation about COVID-19 could be subject to discipline by state medical boards, even risk losing their licenses, under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Assembly Bill 2098, sponsored by Assemblymember Evan Low, labels the spread of COVID-19 misinformation or disinformation as "unprofessional conduct" – a term used in the Medical Practice Act to describe conduct where disciplinary action is warranted.

The new law would punish doctors who spread false information to their patients about COVID-19 by allowing the Medical Board of California and the Osteopathic Medical Board of California to take "enforcement action" against these practitioners. In certain cases, a doctor could possibly lose their license to practice in California.

In a signing letter, Newsom wrote that he approved the bill because "it is narrowly tailored to apply only to those egregious instances in which a licensee is acting with malicious intent or clearly deviating from the required standard of care." He did, however, raise concerns about the "chilling effect" similar laws could have on physicians who need to be able to talk with patients about the risks and benefits of treatments developed in recent years.

"However, I am confident that discussing emerging ideas or treatments including the subsequent risks and benefits does not constitute misinformation or disinformation under this bill's criteria," he wrote.

The bill was authored in response to reports of doctors disseminating inaccurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the bill's text. The Federation of State Medical Boards released a statement warning physicians who participate in disseminating false information that they could "risk losing their license," the legislation states.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately led to increasing amounts of misinformation and disinformation related to the disease including how the virus is transmitted, promoting untested treatments and cures, and calling into question public health efforts such as masking and vaccinations," the California Medical Association wrote in support of the bill. "Many health professionals, including physicians, have been the culprits of this misinformation and disinformation effort."

The bill faced pushback from physicians groups and health coalitions across the state who feared the language in the bill was "overly broad." Californians for Good Governance stated opposition to the bill "based on concerns about its unconstitutional restrictions on free speech."

The bill was among several measures introduced by members of a Legislative Vaccine Work Group, who authored measures to bolster the state's response to the pandemic and combat misinformation.

AB 2098 was one of just a handful of bills introduced by the group that made it to the governor's desk. Measures that would have allowed teens 15 and older to get vaccines without parental consent, required California workers to be vaccinated, and mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for school children were all shelved during the legislative session.

Newsom did sign a bill last month that requires schools to have a COVID-19 testing plan. The bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Pan, was one of the bills backed by the Legislative Vaccine Work Group.

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