South Florida doctor files complaint against Ladapo with Florida state Board of Medicine

Claims that surgeon general has said things about COVID-19 that he knows to be false

Jeffrey Schweers
Capital Bureau | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA

It took two years and a global pandemic for Florida physicians to call for the removal of former Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, whose own colleagues criticized the pediatrician for signing an emergency rule barring schools from requiring students to wear masks.

But it took less than two months to call for the removal of the current surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, who doubled down on prohibiting mask mandates while adding a ban on schools sending COVID-exposed students home to be quarantined.

At least two petitions are circulating asking the Legislature to either censure or reject Ladapo as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ choice for surgeon general – or at the very least ask a lot of questions and make sure the confirmation process is rigorous and transparent.

And now, Boynton Beach ophthalmologist Howard Goldman has filed a formal complaint with the Florida Board of Medicine against Ladapo. 

More coverage of Joseph Ladapo, powered by USA TODAY Network-Florida:

At the core of his complaint are claims that the surgeon general, who also is the head of the Department of Health, has made public pronouncements about COVID-19 that he knows to be false.

Florida’s new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, speaks at an Oct. 14 press conference at the Florida Department of Health in Lee County.

“He is using his bully pulpit to spread doubt about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, promoting the use of unproven and possibly dangerous medications like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin,” Goldman said. And because of those statements, people have been reluctant to seek appropriate care and treatment, he said.

Since he was appointed surgeon general on Sept. 21, Ladapo has said the COVID-19 vaccine is not as effective or as safe as the mainstream medical community and media make it out to be, and that media outlets are not reporting the real number of breakthrough cases among those who have been vaccinated.

One of his first comments as surgeon general was that his decisions and policies would be data driven, but in the case of vaccinations he said people should trust their “intuition and sensibilities.” 

He also refused to wear a mask when asked by a state senator who informed him she was being treated for a serious medical condition, saying he couldn’t communicate effectively with a mask over his mouth.

“The state surgeon general has been clear about his approach to public health and policymaking: He follows the data and considers the broad impact of health policies on Floridians’ overall well-being,” Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said in a previous statement.

Several national medical groups and physician associations have come down hard on health care practitioners who promote misinformation about the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, and instead promote treatments that have been proven to be ineffective against treating the highly infectious and deadly respiratory disease.

The Federation of State Medical Boards issued a statement warning that doctors who spread COVID-19 misinformation risk disciplinary action by their state medical boards. They “possess a high degree of public trust and have a powerful platform in society, the FSMB said, and have an ethical responsibility to share factual, scientifically accurate and consensus-driven information.

“Spreading inaccurate COVID-19 vaccine information contradicts that responsibility, threatens to further erode public trust in the medical profession and puts all patients at risk,” the FSMB said.

A joint statement by the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine and American Board of Pediatrics warned that such unethical and unprofessional conduct could put their board certification at risk, too.

Families wait in line for a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic outside of Lee Health’s Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida at HealthPark in Fort Myers on Nov. 13.

Despite those proclamations from national medical boards, actual discipline of physicians for making false statements related to the pandemic is rare. Only two disciplinary actions appear have been taken against doctors, according to a Los Angeles Times column published in August. One was in Oregon and the other was in California.

Also, it appears that few state medical boards have adopted similar policies as the national boards. Tennessee’s Board of Medical Examiners adopted such a policy in September, but at least two members of the state Legislature have pushed back, filing bills to protect physicians who spread misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines.

The Florida Board of Medicine and Department of Health did not respond to a question about whether it agreed with those statements or had its own policy about health care providers spreading false information about COVID-19 protocols, vaccines and treatments.

Over a year ago last summer, Ladapo stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., with a group of physicians calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors. The group’s members have made millions selling hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug also used for some autoimmune diseases, and ivermectin, an anti-parasitic, to patients as a treatment against COVID.

Neither drug has been approved for use against infection from COVID, and tests have proven hydroxychloroquine to have no therapeutic benefits against the disease. Also, one of the group’s leaders was charged in the Jan. 6 riots in D.C. 

Jaheim Knight, 5, of Fort Pierce, receives his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Nov. 16 at Chester A. Moore Elementary School in Fort Pierce. Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has said people should trust their “intuition and sensibilities” when it comes to vaccination decisions.

As surgeon general, Ladapo sits atop the organizational chart for the Department of Health, which is also the umbrella organization for the Board of Medicine.

“All complaints received by the department are treated equally and reviewed thoroughly. The department takes every complaint seriously and moves toward a swift resolution,” the DOH’s communications office said in an email to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida.

The DOH and Board of Medicine didn’t respond to questions about how many complaints it had received about doctors spreading misinformation about COVID, despite reports of doctors around the state prescribing ivermectin as a treatment.

The DOH has a “robust investigative and enforcement team that is dedicated to receiving, reviewing and investigating consumer complaints made against a health care provider,” the agency said.

A box of ivermectin is shown in a pharmacy as pharmacists work in the background in Ga.

How the complaint process works

When a complaint is filed, it is investigated and referred to the Prosecution Services Unit to be reviewed by an attorney who will determine if an administrative complaint should be recommended.

That determination is made by a probable cause panel of the Board of Medicine. If a probable cause finding is made, the department will then file an administrative complaint and initiate disciplinary action against the licensee.

The entire case and all documents related to it are confidential until 10 days after a probable cause panel determines that probable cause exists. If no probable cause is found, the case remains exempt from public disclosure.

“The department takes very seriously the importance of health care providers following rules related to the practice of medicine,” the agency said. And every licensee has the right to due process under the law.

Florida’s new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, speaks at a press conference Oct. 14 in Lee County. At least two petitions are circulating asking the Legislature to either censure Ladapo or reject his appointment to the post.

“We can assure the public that we will be diligent and thorough in protecting them from unsafe health care practice,” the emailed statement said.

Anyone with knowledge of a provider acting inappropriately should report that to the department at its health complaint portal at flhealthcomplaint.gov.

Goldman said he’s never filed a complaint against a physician before, but he maintains the Board of Medicine should admonish or otherwise discipline Ladapo for comments that he says lead to vaccine hesitancy. Ideally, he said he hopes Ladapo’s medical license, which was approved in two days, would be revoked

“Doctors swear the Hippocratic oath to do no harm,” Goldman said.

Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

Subscribe today using the link at the top of the page and never miss a story.