Members of the legislative Child Fatality Task Force map out what they can accomplish in the upcoming long session.
By Rose Hoban
Preventing youth suicide, restoring funds for North Carolina’s poison-control hotline and banning tanning bed use by minors are among the priorities set by members of the Child Fatality Task Force for next year’s legislative session.
In a meeting this week, the task force, made up of lawmakers and dozens of volunteer child health and safety experts from around the state, voted to support these and a handful of other issues at the General Assembly.
But in the wake of attempts to eliminate the task force in each of the past two legislative sessions, the body’s recommendations were more muted than in years past.
Co-chair Karen McLeod advised the group about supporting issues that stay within the scope of the task force’s legislative mandate.
“[We’ve] been under a bit of pressure over the last couple of years. There has been great effort over the last couple of years to eliminate the task force,” McLeod told the group as they started discussion about what legislative initiatives to support.
In the last biennium, the task force put its weight behind several controversial issues. One of those was a 2013 measure to instruct middle-schoolers that having an abortion puts women at greater risk for subsequent miscarriage, an argument with disputable scientific evidence. While a majority of task force members voted for that bill, including several lawmakers, it was contentious within the group.
Another factious issue has been the task force’s continued support of youth tobacco-cessation funding.
“This is a very political environment, as you know, and sometimes there are items that are pushed forward, and they actually are supported by legislators, and that can make it difficult … because obviously they have a strong voice,” McLeod told the group. “They are the ones who are going to make the final decisions in this building.”
With those words in mind, the group went on to vote on what issues it would endorse and support in the coming months.
Restoring lost funds
In 2008, state lawmakers cut funding for the Carolinas Poison Center, the state’s hotline for poisoning, from $1.4 million to about $770,000. In subsequent years, any additional state funding for the center was done on a one-time basis, but state funds have never returned to 2008 levels.
According to Anna Dulaney, a toxicologist with the center, the money was made up by federal funds and money provided by Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte, where the call center is housed. But the federal sequestration in early 2013 cut those funds and money from the health system has also dwindled, even as calls to the center have increased steadily to about 186,000 per year. About half the calls concerned children under the age of 6.
So Dulaney and others have been working with task force members to get support for more funds.
“Everybody has faced cuts recently, so we had to look hard at cuts for our services,” she said. “We did lose two nursing positions, and then our director, who is a physician, retired earlier this year. The decision was made not to replace her with another physician.”
Pediatrician Elaine Cabinum-Foeller from East Carolina University said the poison control center is essential, even in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units.
“Kids come into the emergency department or into the hospital as an admission, and if they’re in overdose we’ll almost always call poison control with the symptoms or the medication we think they took so we can get advice on how to treat them,” Cabinum-Foeller said.
She also said having the poison center available around the clock saves money for the health care system.
“By a parent being able to call the poison center, they will be able to get some advice and they can handle their child at home and get some reassurance so that they don’t have to come into the emergency room in some cases,” she said.
Lawmakers were receptive.
“I’ve used the poison control center personally,” said Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Denton). “I was rattlesnake bit, and I know the value of this poison control center.”
Lawmakers were not as receptive to a request to restore funding for the state’s youth tobacco-prevention program, which went from $17.3 million in 2011 to nothing in 2013 and 2014.
Rep. Paul Stam (R-Apex) said that he’s in favor of restoring the full funding, but that since the money has been gone for several years the task force should ask for less.
“I wonder if it might be … another idea to say ‘provide additional funds’ as opposed to picking $17.3 million, because that’s not going to happen,” Stam said. “I think it would make it easier to get everything else.”
“We do understand the state is facing some challenges, and we appreciate any assistance you can provide,” said Pam Seamans, head of the N.C. Alliance for Health.
She pointed out that while youth cigarette use has dropped, use of other nicotine products has increased among teens.
“Use of electronic cigarettes and hookahs has increased by 350 percent between 2011 and 2013,” Seamans said. “We really do need to have some youth education.”
The task force did vote to throw its support behind an initiative to require childproof packaging on the nicotine-containing liquids used in e-cigarettes.
Dulaney said that for the last few years, the poison control center had received several hundred nicotine-poisoning calls per year, but that by September they’d already received about 400 calls this year.
“And the difference is the liquid nicotine,” she said. “The calls regarding traditional tobacco products are holding steady, but the calls regarding e-nicotine are skyrocketing.”
Other Child Fatality Task Force priorities for the 2015 legislative session:
– Increase funding by 5 percent each for:
• Perinatal Quality Care Collaborative of North Carolina (previously $350,000)
• ECU High-Risk Maternity clinic ($375,000)
• Preconception Health Campaign ($350,000)
• Funding for the medication 17-P, which can prevent preterm birth ($52,000)
– Increase funding for the Safe Sleep campaign from $45,000 to $100,000
– Increase funding for Child Advocacy Centers from $375,000 to $750,000
– A resolution on looking for ways to prevent youth suicide
– Recurring funds to the State Bureau of Investigation to support safe drug disposal
– Ban youth under 18 years old from using tanning beds
– Legislation to require drivers of scooters to wear reflective clothing
– Legislation to strengthen the Controlled Substance Reporting System
– Legislation to ban the sale of children’s products containing chemicals such as flame retardants, phthalates and BPA