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Without quorum, Senate committee advances COVID-19 treatment bill

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A sparsely attended Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that says doctors can’t have their licenses revoked for giving people with COVID-19 medications not approved by the FDA for treating the virus.

Senate Bill 312 was approved on a 4-0 vote in the Senate Health Care Committee. There are 13 members on the committee, which means there weren’t enough present to consider legislation. Senate rules say “a majority of the membership of each standing committee shall constitute a quorum to conduct business, and all standing committees shall meet formally to consider bills before it.”

But deciding if he or she has a quorum is up to each committee chair based on what he sees, Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris later told Alabama Daily News. 

“If the committee chairman says there’s a quorum, we don’t go behind the committee chairman,” Harris said.

As long as the chairman certifies the vote, it moves along in the legislative process, Harris said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, is a co-sponsor on SB312 and questioned whether there was a quorum rule when contacted by Alabama Daily News.

He then said that time is running out in this legislative session expected to end in early April.

“Every committee member there agreed this bill is very important,” McClendon said. “My concern was that if we delayed this, that (the bill) could very well die, just like people are dying from COVID.”

The bill says “a licensing board shall not revoke, suspend, fail to renew, or take action against a physician’s license based solely on a physician’s recommended or prescribed treatment for COVID-19 if the physician exercised independent medical judgment, believes that the medical treatment is in the best interest of the patient, and the patient provided written, informed consent before receiving the treatment.”

During the public hearing, several people and doctors spoke in favor of the bill, saying they need to be free to practice in the best way to help their patients. Some specifically mentioned using Ivermectin, a medication used to treat some parasitic diseases, in fighting COVID-19.

While Ivermectin is FDA-approved for some uses in people, treating COVID-19 is not one of them.

Bill sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, noted the attendance issue when speaking during the public hearing.

“We obviously don’t have a quorum, Mr. Chairman, which is a concern,” Orr said. 

Orr went on to say that in the last two years there has been a “politicization of medicine… which is a dangerous thing to do,” he said.

He also said that his bill would only allow for the “off label” prescription of drugs that are already FDA approved.

About two dozen other states have similar legislation, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards.

McClendon had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and said he was so weak, he could hardly push the buttons to operate his hospital bed.

“The last thing I would want is for the attending physician to have handcuffs on,” he said.

Later Wednesday, McClendon said he’s received about 100 emails in support of the bill.

The Alabama Association for Justice, which represents lawyers, spoke in opposition to the bill Wednesday, saying it was concerned with some of the immunity the legislation would provide.

McClendon asked the association and Orr to work together on the bill before it gets to the Senate floor.

In the same meeting, the committee also approved Senate Bill 307 by Sen. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton. It allows pharmacists to prescribe the immunizations they already can administer. 


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