HARRISBURG, Pa. — State lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe off-label drugs to treat COVID-19 without facing criminal or professional penalties.
The bill would apply to off-label use of drugs, which is when a legal prescription medicine is used to treat a different condition than the ones for which it has been approved.
The bill's author, State Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-York), argued doctors should not be confined to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when treating COVID patients.
“I am advocating for treatment, period, for patients’ right to try, these patients who are told in the hospital there’s nothing else we can do for them," said Keefer, who also serves as secretary of the House Health Committee. "Why not a Hail Mary?”
The bill passed out of the House Health Committee on Monday, advancing to the House for a full vote.
The legislation follows recent controversy over some doctors prescribing two drugs in particular: ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Ivermectin is approved to treat some parasitic infections, while hydroxychloroquine is approved to treat malaria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, has repeatedly and specifically advised against using them to treat COVID-19.
Last week, Dr. Edith Behr of Pottstown was fired from her job as a surgeon at Tower Health after an internal investigation determined she prescribed hundreds of people ivermectin without having a consulting appointment with them.
Behr and the pharmacy she sent her prescriptions to, Capstone Compounding Pharmacy in Wyomissing, both faced widespread pushback on the internet for their promotion of the unproven drugs to treat COVID-19.
Because Behr violated prescribing standards by not meeting with all patients, the bill would not apply to her, Keefer said. It would protect the pharmacy, however, which announced it would no longer dispense ivermectin in the aftermath of Behr’s firing.
“Right now what’s happening is doctors and pharmacists are being investigated not for causing any harm but simply for prescribing some different drugs,” Keefer said.
Critics of the bill pointed out medical licensing boards already have their own standards for off-label prescribing.
“This just isn’t necessary," said State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), Democratic chairman of the House Health Committee. "If the idea is to allow physicians to prescribe off-label, that’s already allowed.”
Frankel added he believes politicians shouldn’t interject themselves into medical ethics standards.
“We don’t have medical degrees," he said. "I don’t think there’s one physician in the legislature."
The bill still has a long way to go to become law. It would need to pass in both the House and the Senate, and then it remains unclear if Gov. Tom Wolf would sign the measure.
The governor’s office wrote in a statement,
“We will continue to monitor the bill as it moves through the legislature.”