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Health Issues Absent from House Budget Debate

The House tentatively approved its biennial budget Wednesday afternoon after a marathon session. But health and human services were hardly mentioned throughout the seven-hour debate.

By Rose Hoban

Though members of the House of Representatives argued over this year’s state budget for more than seven hours Wednesday afternoon – debating more than two dozen amendments – only one health care topic came up: a technical change to the way pharmacists invoice Medicaid and how they get paid by the program.

Any changes to health care in the final budget will instead end up being done behind closed doors in the conference committee with the Senate.

The two chambers differ on a number of health care issues, including dealing with funding for mental health group homes, eugenics compensation, funding for NC Pre-K and child care subsidies and how to pay for care for low-income pregnant women.

At least one hot-button health care issue was expected to be debated in the House floor Wednesday – eugenics compensation – but the chamber was mum on the subject.

The House budget allows for $10 million to compensate the victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program that ran from 1929 to 1973. Thousands of young men and women were forcibly sterilized in the cause of the “public good”; many of the victims were juvenile offenders or developmentally disabled.

In 2010, then-Gov. Bev Perdue created the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which included a task force to review recommendations on how to address the sterilization issue (Note: NC Health News board member Phoebe Zerwick was a member of the task force).

The task force eventually recommended compensating victims who are still alive and can be located at the rate of $50,000 per person.

“A wrong was done in this state,” said House Appropriations Committee co-chair Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) earlier this week. “Unfortunately, there is no way for those living victims to receive compensation for that in the court system.

“What the provision essentially does is afford individuals who are still alive who were victims of some rather heinous liberal policies to be compensated.”

Last year, Perdue included $10.3 million in her budget to cover the costs of compensation, and the provision was supported by leaders in the House, but leaders in the Senate opposed it. The Senate’s view prevailed, although Speaker of the House Thom Tillis vowed to champion a compensation fund in this year’s budget.

“The reason eugenics didn’t come up today is because we beat that attempt back so badly in committee,” said Rep. Paul Stam (R-Apex), referring to the hours-long debate on Tuesday in the full House Appropriations Committee.

An amendment offered during Tuesday’s committee meeting by Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Concord) would have stripped $10 million for eugenics compensation out of the budget bill.

But many Republicans on the committee spoke movingly in favor of providing compensation to eugenics victims, and the amendment failed by a vote of 64 to 22.

“They thought they were going to get about 40, 45 votes,” said Stam, who supports compensating victims. “They thought they were going to win. When they got only 20, they got discouraged. So that’s why there was no amendment today.”

Other states had eugenics programs, but North Carolina is the only state that has proposed paying compensation to victims.

Protecting children

The other missing amendment Wednesday was one to restore the long-running Child Fatality Task Force, which has been key in proposing numerous measures to protect children since it was formed in 1991.

“That was a task force that was put into place, a temporary task force at one time that had been extended over time, and it has made some good recommendations, some that we’ve accepted,” said Rep. Justin Burr (R-Albemarle) at a press conference on Monday.

Burr_headshot

Rep. Justin Burr (R-Albemarle)

But a number of things the task force recommended, he said, had been rejected by the legislature.

Burr pointed out that local child fatality teams that investigate child deaths would be kept in place under the provision, but that the legislative study and policymaking arm of the task force would be eliminated next July.

“Its just removing a layer of that process here in Raleigh, and we’ll continue to focus on those issues,” Burr said.

Early Wednesday afternoon, during the floor debate on the budget bill, an amendment to the bill written by Rep. Jim Fulghum (R-Raleigh) appeared on the electronic dashboard section of the General Assembly website. But within a few minutes, the amendment disappeared again, and did not return throughout the floor debate Wednesday.

“I think we pretty much worked out an agreement that we’re going to work to get that knocked out in the conference committee,” said Stam, a member of the task force.

He agreed the parliamentary move eliminated the spectacle of Republicans arguing with one another on the House floor about preventing child deaths.

“Those are strictly inter-Republican issues,” he said.

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