The Medical Board of California has opened investigations into multiple California doctors, as a result of a 2019 story by Voice of San Diego that named dozens of doctors who wrote vaccine exemptions for students in San Diego Unified School District based on questionable medical science.
The Morning Report
Get the news and information you need to take on the day.
Our reporting relies on your support. Contribute today!
Help us reach our goal of $250,000. The countdown is on!
A two-year legal battle has ended with a victory for those who want state authorities to crack down on questionable vaccine exemptions for public school students.
At the center of the fight: student medical records related to vaccine exemptions held by San Diego Unified School District. A San Diego Superior Court judge has ruled late last year those records can be used by Medical Board officials to investigate bogus exemptions.
In 2019, the Medical Board of California subpoenaed the exemption records of 31 doctors from the school district, following a report by Voice of San Diego that showed many doctors within the district appeared to be writing exemptions based on dubious medical science. The document obtained by Voice through a public record request showed doctors names and the reasons they had granted an exemption, but did not contain student information.
If parents did not object, San Diego Unified voluntarily handed over the records to the Medical Board. A district spokeswoman could not immediately say how many records the district voluntarily provided. But Medical Board documents show at least 10 doctors from the initial list published by Voice have already been charged with writing inappropriate vaccine exemptions – suggesting their records were handed over by the district.
The Medical Board revoked the licenses of two doctors – Drs. Kenneth Stoler and Monica Murphy – as a result of the charges. Two doctors surrendered their licenses – Drs. Ron Kennedy and Barnet Meltzer. Another two – Drs. Anne Adams and Dan Harper – were barred from writing vaccine exemptions. Three doctors’ cases are still pending and no action has yet been taken by the Medical Board.
Dr. Tara Zandvliet – who was not included in the list of 31 doctors – wrote more exemptions for San Diego Unified students than any other physician. She was also charged by the Medical Board with writing improper vaccine exemptions and is now on probation.
San Diego Unified, for its part, did not oppose the subpoenas. But the district did send out notices to all families whose records were requested. At least three parents objected to San Diego Unified sharing medical records with investigators.
One parent, Amy Borecky, retained a lawyer to fight against the subpoenas in court. In an early court filing, Borecky’s lawyer argued the records shouldn’t be turned over without approval from each of the families involved.
“None of the parents involved has asked that their doctor be investigated. Nor have they expressed concerns about the medical care provided to their children,” Barbara Moore wrote. (Moore later left the case and Borecky retained a new attorney.)
Borecky’s current lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
The legal case came down to a battle over the records of two doctors: Dr. John Humiston and Dr. Timothy Dooley.
Dooley had written 15 medical exemptions and Humiston had written 13, according to the database published by Voice. They were two of only eight doctors to have written more than 10 exemptions.
Dr. James Nuovo, a consultant hired by the Medical Board, reviewed Humiston’s exemptions.
Nuovo had “serious concerns” that Humiston’s exemptions were “not based on valid medical indications,” he wrote in a declaration to the court.
Nuovo was especially skeptical that Humiston had written exemptions that lasted until children were 18 years old – and that the exemptions were for each and every vaccine.
There is no condition that would limit a child from receiving “all vaccines, permanently,” Nuovo wrote.
Humiston advertises himself as a practitioner of alternative medicine – and for several years practiced in Tijuana, where he had more leeway to use “unconventional therapies,” according to the Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine. He has been publicly reprimanded by the Medical Board for gross negligence in the past and currently faces new charges related to his treatment of mental illness.
Humiston’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Many of the questionable exemptions were granted based on a family history of allergies or autoimmune disease.
The American Academy of Pediatricians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not endorse these as valid reasons to grant an exemption. But a 2018 study found that a small minority of doctors across the state regularly use family history as a reason to grant an exemption.
It’s a “soft reason,” Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital, previously told me.
Sawyer said it’s possible genetics may increase a child’s risk for being harmed by a vaccine, but that no research has ever confirmed a link.
Dooley, the other doctor involved in the case, wrote some of his exemptions based on a history of autoimmune disease. He did not respond to a request for comment, but did address vaccine exemptions with me in a previous email exchange.
“The purpose of an exemption is to protect susceptible children. Most of these susceptibilities are currently poorly understood,” he wrote. “It is always our duty to err on the side of safety. Always.”
A San Diego Superior Court judge ruled late last year that San Diego Unified must hand over the records of both Humiston and Dooley – indicating that Medical Board investigators can pursue school district records in at least some cases to bring cases against doctors in the future. So far the Medical Board has not charged either doctor related to vaccine exemptions.