Several health-related bills came down to the wire on the final day of the regular legislative session Saturday.
Most notable was a bill to license syringe exchange programs in the state, which health leaders have said will shutter programs as two of the largest cities in the state deal with concerning HIV outbreaks among IV drug users.
The Senate amended the House version of Senate Bill 334 on Saturday morning. The two changes add back in a West Virginia ID requirement, and require all programs currently operating that do not offer a full array of harm reduction services to cease operation.
Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, chair of the Senate Health Committee, said the floor amendment did place more restrictions on syringe exchange programs, but said there is more to the issue than following science, such as crime.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no evidence syringe exchange programs lead to an increase in crime. The CDC also says the most effective syringe programs are those with the least restrictions.
Harm reduction experts have said the bill will make it nearly impossible for syringe exchanges to operate, despite some lawmakers feeling they have reached a compromise between a total ban and zero restrictions.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said the bill is a knee-jerk reaction to syringe litter and it throws the baby out with the bathwater. He said it will make the already-concerning HIV outbreaks in the state worse.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said the bill, as it left House Judiciary, was a compromise, but amendments then made it so he could not vote for it. He said lawmakers in three to four years will have to deal with this bill after an HIV epidemic, just like former Vice President Mike Pence had to change the Indiana law outlawing syringe exchanges after more than 200 people contracted HIV in one rural county in 2014.
“We are throwing these people away,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia. “These are our friends and neighbors, and we are throwing them away.”
The House accepted the changes made by the Senate late Saturday night.
A bill Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, has worked on for several years finally passed the Legislature.
House Bill 3107 will allow first responder agencies to provide workers’ compensation benefits for their employees who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the job. This includes firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians.
The Senate amended the bill to make it a pilot program that ends in 2026 unless the Legislature decides to continue it.
The major issue with the legislation was the cost of providing the benefit. The deputy commissioner of the state Insurance Commission said it is hard to rate the benefit because so few offer it in the U.S. It is also unlikely that volunteer fire departments could afford the benefit, but lawmakers said they hoped to dip their toes into the water and learn more.
A bill medical experts say is not based off science is also heading to the governor.
The Senate passed House Bill 2982, or the Second Chance at Life Act, which requires physicians who prescribe the medicated abortion process to tell women “some say” an abortion can be “counteracted” and to contact their doctor if they “change their mind” about having an abortion after taking the first pill in the two-pill process.
A medication-induced abortion involves two pills: first, mifepristone, which blocks the hormone progesterone and prevents further growth of the embryo, and then misoprostol, which causes the uterus to contract and expel the embryo.
The only study attempted at gauging the efficacy of a so-called reversal procedure of using progesterone to support pregnancy to term after taking mifepristone was suspended by the review board. After enrolling 12 of 40 patients for the study, three had hemorrhaging that placed them in the hospital. One had received progesterone and the other two only the placebo. The study was stopped after the third hemorrhage as it was deemed unethical to continue.
On Saturday, Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, a physician, said he was initially against interfering with physician-patient relationships, but changed his mind. He said there will never be any studies on the topic.
Stollings said the bill was just for votes and so they can send mailers that say he didn’t vote “for a second chance at life.”
Women’s health advocates say the bill is dangerous to women’s health because it promotes untested theories.
Health facility visitation
A bill to make visitation in medical facilities a patient right even in a pandemic was passed Saturday.
The Senate passed House Bill 2368, or the Mylissa Smith Law, and the House accepted the changes made by the Senate.
The bill requires hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and any other medical facility to permit visitation of patients at least once every five days during a public health emergency.
The Senate amended the bill to make it clear hospitals will still need to follow federal policies. During the Health Committee meeting, it was reported the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid issued rules on pandemic visitation that would have impacted federal funding if facilities didn’t comply.
Visitors will have to follow all facility rules and can lose their right to visit if they do not comply.