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Pa. doctor offering free mask-exemption letter for parents faces possible discipline

Joel Yeager, whose practice is in Lebanon County, has since removed the form from his website. The state said it was referring such cases to the appropriate boards for potential disciplinary action.

Kindergarteners with masks wait to start their first day of school at Powel SLAMS a K-8 school in Philadelphia. A doctor in Lebanon County has been giving out a free mask-exemption form to parents looking to defy the state's mask mandate.
Kindergarteners with masks wait to start their first day of school at Powel SLAMS a K-8 school in Philadelphia. A doctor in Lebanon County has been giving out a free mask-exemption form to parents looking to defy the state's mask mandate.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

As school districts around the state decide how closely to follow Gov. Tom Wolf’s mask mandate, a Pennsylvania doctor has distributed a free mask-exemption letter for parents — an act that medical experts described as an abuse of the doctor’s authority.

Joel Yeager, of Heritage Family Health in Newmansville, in Lebanon County, posted the form letter on his website last week and the link began circulating among Pennsylvania anti-mask Facebook groups.

The Wolf administration said it is aware of these stock exemptions and would be referring doctors that author them “to the appropriate licensing boards for possible disciplinary action.” Yeager has since removed the letter from his website and his practice’s Facebook page, but it is still available online.

In the letter, Yeager decries physicians “who have chosen to abandon their patients in their hour of greatest need” by refusing to grant an exemption for masking and vaccination.

» READ MORE: These doctors and nurses share COVID-19 falsehoods. They can become misinformation superspreaders

He lists “adverse health effects” caused by masking, citing two journal articles that have been retracted. One of those articles was retracted because the journal Medical Hypotheses deemed it misleading and not backed by scientific evidence. The study’s author, Baruch Vainshelboim, wrongly stated he was affiliated with Stanford and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. In his exemption form Yeager says the study was retracted because of “cancel culture.”

Yeager did not respond to requests for comment.

MeiLan Han, a lung doctor at the University of Michigan who focuses on patients with respiratory illnesses, said she has yet to issue an exemption for her patients.

“It’s hard for me to believe that you would see significant ill health effects from the type of the facial coverings that we recommend the public wear,” she said, referring to cloth masks, rather than tight-fitting N95 masks.

The American Thoracic Society, an organization focused on respiratory health, said last year that even individuals with chronic lung disease should be able to wear cloth masks.

The letter of exemption has driven business to Yeager’s practice, according to Heritage Family Health’s Facebook page. “Regretfully, our office cannot take on the overwhelming amount of new patients looking to transfer in,” the office posted Sept. 7, the day after it first shared the form letter. “We will be closing to new patients until January of 2022.” People commented, thanking him for standing up to “BIG HARMA” and arming them in the fight against officials who want to “muzzle” their children.

A month into the pandemic, Yeager authored a letter to Wolf arguing against masks and Wolf’s shutdown orders — which State Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) then distributed on his blog. “Folks, don’t listen to me,” Diamond wrote. “I want you instead to listen to someone in the medical community.”

» READ MORE: Pa. school mask exemption loophole draws pushback from Wolf administration

Yeager and his wife, LuAnne Yeager, who practices with him, attended Kigezi International School of Medicine, according to his website. Three years after he graduated, the school’s license was revoked by the National Council of Higher Education in Uganda following a financial crisis that shut down its British campus.

The Yeagers have never been sanctioned by the state Board of Medicine.

The exemption form has had mixed results.

Some districts, such as Jersey Shore Area schools in Lycoming County and Punxsutawney Area schools in Jefferson County, accepted the form for a few days last week until telling parents that they needed a form specific to their child, rather than a catchall like Yeager’s.

The Conneaut School District in Crawford County is accepting Yeager’s form, the Meadville Tribune reported last week, and the Quakertown School Board voted last week to accept any form submitted by parents.

The state Department of Education said Friday that exemption forms that do not include evidence of a student’s relevant health issue should not be accepted. Schools that do not comply with the mask order could open themselves up to lawsuits, the state said, and a federal civil rights investigation.

The state Board of Medicine would not confirm any action it may or may not be taking regarding Yeager.

Citing “a dramatic increase in the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation by physicians,” the Federation of State Medical Boards warned in July that physicians who do so risk disciplinary action, including losing their licenses.

But it would be unusual for a physician to lose a license for distributing such an exemption form, as well as misinformation, said Dominic Sisti, director of Penn’s Scattergood Program for the Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care.

Licensing bodies don’t usually take action against doctors who use their authority to spread misinformation or encourage people to flout government orders, he said.

“Pseudoscientific quacks have been with us from time immemorial,” he said.

But these boards should take action, he said.

“Having a physician in particular out there doing this is really damaging,” Sisti said. “Using their authority as a physician, using their title to go out and not only spread misinformation but enable people to do things that are against the public health, is really problematic.”

Staff writers Maddie Hanna and Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.