California broadens investigation of doctors for issuing questionable vaccine exemptions

The California agency that regulates doctors is investigating at least four physicians for issuing questionable medical exemptions to children whose parents did not want them immunized.

The Medical Board of California’s investigations are unfolding amid the nation’s worst measles outbreak in more than a quarter-century, as California lawmakers consider controversial legislation to tighten the requirements for exempting children from the vaccinations required to attend schools and day care centers.

Last month, the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the medical board, sued in state court to obtain medical records for patients of Sacramento-area pediatricians Dr. Kelly Sutton and Dr. Michael Fielding Allen.

In the past nine months, the board also has sought patients’ records in connection with two Santa Rosa physicians under investigation for writing allegedly inappropriate exemptions.

The state acted on the Sutton and Allen cases following complaints to the medical board from Dr. Wendy Cerny, assistant chief of pediatrics at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Roseville, court documents show. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanante.) Cerny contacted the board about Sutton in February 2017 and followed up with an email about Allen 15 months later, according to the documents.

Cerny became concerned after seeing permanent medical exemptions for Kaiser Permanente pediatric patients written by Sutton and Allen that cited reasons including “a personal history of genetic defect,” food and environmental allergies, “neurological vulnerability” and a family history of mental health disorders, according to the legal documents.

The doctors under investigation are not Kaiser Permanente doctors, but parents went to them for vaccination exemptions. In one case, Sutton issued a “lifelong medical exemption from all vaccines” to a boy before his family joined Kaiser Permanente, according to Cerny’s complaint. When one of Cerny’s colleagues refused to write similar exemptions for the boy’s two younger siblings, the mother said she would go back to Sutton to get them, the complaint says.

“We feel this doctor and perhaps her colleagues … are making easy money on these exemptions that are not based on true medical need and are actually putting children and other people in the community at risk for contracting and spreading serious infectious diseases,” Cerny wrote in her complaint about Sutton.