As legislators reconvene in Raleigh this week, health advocates will be on Jones Street to push for their priorities – some of them new, some left over from prior legislative sessions.
By Hyun Namkoong
During the last legislative biennium, a number of health care initiatives were introduced, some of which made it through only one chamber. Advocates say they’re back again to get their priorities passed. They also have some new initiatives they want lawmakers to consider.
Autism health insurance
Advocates are hopeful that legislation requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for the screening, diagnosis and treatment of people with autism will pass this year after several failed attempts at passage during the last biennium.
House Bill 498, known as the Autism Health Insurance Coverage bill, passed the House but was sent to an insurance committee after its first reading in the Senate in May. There the bill languished without action until the legislature recessed in August.
Advocates saw some last-minute hope for the bill’s passage when it was tucked into a regulatory reform bill, but that also failed to get final approval in the Senate.
Jen Mahan, director of advocacy and public policy for the Autism Society of North Carolina, said she’s hopeful the legislation will pass this year because a lot of progress has been made in recent years. She said there’s been movement around this legislation for seven years and many states around the country have passed similar bills, including South Carolina and Virginia.
“We know there are a lot of people who need these services and we are hoping that the Senate will recognize the importance of it,” Mahan said.
Raising the age of youth incarceration
State advocates are optimistic that the age of criminal jurisdiction will be raised to 18 after last year’s passage of the “Raise the Age” bill in the House.
North Carolina and New York are the only states in the country that automatically charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. But changes in New York are starting to take place, which could leave North Carolina in a unique position.
An investigation into the treatment of adolescent inmates on New York City’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility resulted in a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice that found that there was a “deep-seated culture of violence” throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers. The report also found adolescent inmates were inadequately protected from harm caused by correctional officers and adult inmates.
In the wake of the report, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice to develop a strategy and recommendations for raising the age of criminal jurisdiction.
Rob Thompson from the advocacy organization NC Child said that with North Carolina potentially being the only state in the country that automatically charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, the Raise the Age bill is more important than ever.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the incarceration of juvenile offenders in adult prisons not only increases the risk of recidivism but can also make juvenile inmates more violent. Advocates have long argued that incarcerating youth in adult prisons is dangerous to their health. In addition, young offenders who cannot have their criminal records expunged end up with few employment options once they’re released from prison, adding to their economic woes.
Thompson said he expects strong support from both sides of the aisle in raising the age.
“I think [bi-partisan support] speaks a lot about the issue. There are a lot of really good reasons that appeal to a lot of different people and it shows the overwhelming need to get this done,” he said.
Banning minors from tanning-bed use
Legislation making it unlawful for minors to get a bronzed-skin glow – that is, if it’s from a tanning bed – will try to make its way through the General Assembly again this year.
Susan Sanders, former president of the N.C. Dermatology Association, said there’s a lot of momentum around the issue with the release of national reports and scientific studies showing the harm to young skin from tanning beds. Sanders said she’s hopeful it will get passed this year.
A 2014 report from the CDC showed that skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the country and that many cases of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, are related to exposure to ultraviolet light from tanning beds.
Sanders said she’s seen in her own practice a rise of young patients, especially women, who have been diagnosed with melanoma. She said that work on educating the public and lawmakers about the importance of the ban as a public health issue needs to be done to help people realize that the ban is not about regulating small businesses or taking away parent’s authority, as some opponents of the ban have claimed.
“There is a precedent for this kind of legislation that protects children,” Sanders said.
She pointed to laws that require children to wear seat belts or the ban of tobacco sales to minors as public health-oriented legislation that’s similar to the proposed ban on tanning bed use for minors.
“It’s really [about] protecting our children in the state,” Sanders said.
Toxic-free products for kids
Legislation banning certain categories of chemicals in children’s products has been introduced twice before, and advocates are optimistic that the third time’s the charm. The previous two bills banning from children’s products harmful chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and particular kinds of flame retardants were introduced during the 2011-12 and 2013-14 sessions but failed to make it out of committee.
The Child Fatality Task force identified legislation banning the sale of children’s products containing harmful chemicals as a priority issue for this year’s long session.
“We’re trying to protect North Carolina’s children from these different chemicals that have been scientifically linked to various cancers, respiratory disease, endocrine disrupters [and] various kinds of health problems associated with it,” said Preston Peck, a policy advocate for Toxic Free NC, which has supported the bills in the past.
Peck said that children are more vulnerable to harm from different chemicals because they’re very tactile and often put things into their mouths or touch things with their hands.
Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow at NC Child, said that it remains uncertain what the bill would specifically ban or restrict.
Advocates say they have some new initiatives they’d like to see considered at the General Assembly this year, including a proposal to ensure that pregnant women receive basic safety protections at their jobs so that they don’t have to make a choice between a safe pregnancy and maintaining stable employment.
Thompson said that many states around the country are taking the issue of workplace safety during pregnancy into their own hands as the country awaits the Supreme Court’s decision on a case involving the United Parcel Services and former delivery driver Peggy Young.
In 2006, Young asked to be given “light duty” during her pregnancy that didn’t require her to lift more than 20 pounds. Instead, UPS told her that they don’t offer light duty to pregnant workers, and Young lost her job and health insurance coverage.
Advocates also say they want to work to decriminalize the possession of syringes as a way to reduce harm from injection drug use.
In the past decade, rates of abuse of prescription painkillers has resulted in increased rates of opiate addiction and overdose deaths. But as states have moved to limit access to prescription pain medications, many addicted users have looked to instead use heroin, a cheaper and more easily acquired substance that’s commonly injected with a syringe.
“Because of the rise of heroin use, syringe disposal is a major concern for communities here in North Carolina,” said Tessie Castillo, advocacy and communications coordinator of the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition.
Castillo said that the current law does not provide incentives for people to safely dispose of syringes in a secure container, putting them at risk for needle-stick injury. She said her organization would push for introduction of a bill to decriminalize possession of needles in an attempt to protect the public.
“[People] get in just as much trouble for a syringe in a bio-hazard container as one tossed in a playground,” Castillo said. “So we need to change the law to give people incentives to put them in safe containers where they can’t hurt anyone.”