San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera said Wednesday that he is investigating whether a doctor who champions alternative medicine techniques has been illegally excusing children from mandatory vaccinations.
The announcement comes as public health officials nationwide scramble to control measles outbreaks and cases surge to levels not seen in more than two decades. Blame has landed heavily on parents who do not vaccinate their children.
In 2015, California passed a law forcing parents to immunize their children unless a doctor says there is a medical reason for them not to get their shots. But the number of these medical exemptions has tripled since the law took effect, and some worry that physicians are penning fraudulent exemptions.
Children undergoing chemotherapy or who are allergic to a component of a vaccine could be eligible for a medical exemption, experts say, yet there have been reports of medical exemptions being written for more vague reasons.
Herrera issued a subpoena Wednesday that asks Dr. Kenneth Stoller to turn over health records for patients for whom he approved, denied or considered granting medical exemptions between January 2016 and the present, with any identifying information about the patients redacted. The doctor has 15 days to respond to the request.
Stoller graduated from the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in 1982 and practices in the Nob Hill neighborhood, according to California medical board records. He is a proponent of using oxygen chambers to cure several conditions.
Stoller has been quoted in interviews as saying that he was temporarily paralyzed by a vaccine as a child, and that he sometimes relies on findings from 23AndMe genetic tests to determine whether a child qualifies for an exemption.
Herrera said he is investigating whether Stoller violated state nuisance laws by writing medical exemptions for people who do not need them.
“As a community, we have a responsibility to each other … There are children who have serious medical conditions that prevent them from getting vaccinated,” Herrera said in a statement. “If someone uses a medical exemption they don’t qualify for and introduces unvaccinated children into that environment, the kids who legitimately can’t get a vaccine — and ultimately the general public — are the ones in real danger.”
Stoller’s attorney, Richard Jaffe, said he is reviewing the subpoena, but does not understand why the city attorney is getting involved in a health issue that should be left to the medical board or public health officials.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jaffe said in an interview. “What basis does he have to say that there are any false or fraudulent exemptions?”
California’s strict vaccination law, known as SB 277, left the decision as to whether a patient qualifies for a medical exemption up to physician’s discretion. There are no specific criteria that patients must meet for doctors to grant them an exemption, something specifically carved out during heated deliberations over the law when it was passed.
“In order to sell the bill, they created this so-called robust exemption, and turns out it’s not so robust,” Jaffe said.
Since the law went into effect in 2016, one California physician has been sanctioned for fraudulently writing medical exemptions. Orange County-based Dr. Bob Sears was put on probation last year for excusing a 2-year-old from all vaccines.
But the state’s medical board is still investigating nearly 100 complaints against physicians accused of writing fraudulent exemptions since early 2016. The agency received 41 such complaints last year, and has already received 60 in the first four months of 2019, according to board spokesman Carlos Villatoro.
For the most part, California’s strict vaccine laws seem to have worked, experts say. But lawmakers are considering tightening them even further.
In the state Capitol, legislators are weighing a bill that would give the state health department final say over whether a child should receive a medical exemption from some or all vaccines required to attend public or private school. The measure is an effort to reduce the number of fraudulent exemptions.
In West Virginia, which has a strict vaccination law like California’s, each medical exemption must be vetted by the public health department. The state’s medical exemption rate is half of California’s.