Legislature’s many health bills include some with life-saving potential, better prevention, greater access and help for children

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

One paragraph in this story was incorrect and has been stricken.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky legislators have all but ended their regular session without agreeing on a budget, but were able to pass a wide range of health bills that await Gov. Matt Bevin’s signature or veto.

Legislators can still pass more bills, including a budget, when they return for one day, April 12, and reconsider any bills the governor vetoes (except the budget, if one passes that day).

Many of the health bills deal with regulation, such as which agency oversees home medical equipment and licensing rules for physicians. Others, like SB 211, sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, establish a special day to encourage research for amytrophic lateral sclerosis by officially naming Feb. 21 “ALS Awareness Day.”

But several others will impact the daily lives of Kentuckians, directly or indirectly. Some have the potential to save lives.

Senate Bill 33, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, requires every Kentucky high-school student to receive compression-only CPR training. “Each year nearly 424,000 people have sudden cardiac arrest outside of the hospital and only 10 percent of those victims survive,” Wise said at a Jan. 13 Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting. “Yet when a CPR trained bystander is near, they can double or triple these victims survival rate.”

Another bill with life-saving potential would let Kentuckians take time off work to be “living donors” or donate bone marrow without the risk of losing jobs or income. House Bill 19, sponsored by Rep. Ron Crimm, R-Louisville, requires paid leave of absence for such reasons, and offsets this cost to the employer with tax credits.

(An amendment to this bill, illustrating how legislation gets passed in unusual ways during the closing days, would allow Lexington to impose an additional 2.5 percent hotel-room tax to improve its convention center.)

A minor housekeeping bill had an important health amendment attached to it that mandates assisted-living communities to provide residents with educational information about the flu by Sept 1 of each year. SB 22 is sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester. The CDC estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people over 65.

Colon cancer, which kills more than 850 Kentuckians a year, remained in the spotlight with passage of HB115, sponsored by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville. It would expand eligibility for screenings to age-eligible, under-insured Kentuckians, or uninsured persons deemed at high risk for the disease. This bill is aimed at the 7 percent of Kentuckians who have remained uninsured since the state expanded Medicaid under federal health reform, and those who have insurance but can’t afford deductibles or co-payments.

Other bills intended to create better access to care for Kentuckians would expand the duties of advanced practice registered nurses (SB114); decrease the oversight of physician’s assistants (SB154); create a pilot program to study telehealth and how it’s paid for (HB 95); and better define who can perform administrative duties in pharmacies (HB 527).

Children: “Noah’s Law,” or SB 193, sponsored by Alvarado, mandates the coverage of amino-acid-based formulas for eosinophilic esophagitis and other digestive disorders. It will have an impact on more than 200 Kentucky families. It is called “Noah’s Law” after 9-year-old Noah Greenhill of Pike County who suffers from the disease, which requires him to get this formula through a feeding tube four times a day because of severe food allergies, at a daily cost of more than $40. This bill has already been signed by the governor and took effect immediately.

HB148, sponsored by Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, allows day-care centers to be able to obtain and store epinephrine auto-injectors for emergency use. This bill was amended to include “participating places of worship” as a location that newborns up to 30 days old can be left without threat of prosecution to the parent or family member who leaves them there.

The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that one in 68 of the nation’s children have autism, and Kentucky legislators passed two bills this session to address their needs. SB 185, sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, creates the Office of Autism and guidelines for an Advisory Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders. This bill has already been signed by the governor. HB 100, sponsored by House Minority Leader Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, requires insurers to maintain a website to provide information for filing claims on autism coverage and make autism-benefit liaisons available to facilitate communications with policyholders.

Big bills: One of the high-profile health bills that passed this session is SB20, sponsored by Alvarado, which creates a third-party appeals process for providers to appeal denied Medicaid claims. Alvarado has said that 20 percent of Medicaid claims are denied, compared to the national average of around 6 percent. He suggest that bringing this bill will help bring these numbers more in line with each other and thus will encourage more providers to participate in Medicaid.

bill that will eventually increase accessibility to drugs made from living tissues that are very expensive, but also very effective, also passed. SB 134, sponsored by Alvarado, would allow pharmacists to substitute a less-expensive “interchangeable biosimilar” drug for its name-brand “biologic” one, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved these interchangeables yet. Humira and Remicade for arthritis, and Enbrel for psoriasis, are a few of the most common biologics on the market.

Another bill is aimed to help small-town pharmacies stay competitive with chains. SB 117, sponsored by Wise, allows the state Insurance Department to regulate pharmacy benefit managers, like Express Scripts, much like insurance companies. It would also provide an appeal mechanism to resolve pricing disputes between pharmacies and PBMs. The state has more than 500 independent pharmacists that will be affected by this law.

Bigger issues: Health officials say the single most important thing that Kentucky can do to improve the state’s health at no cost is to pass a statewide smoking ban for workplaces. Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, filed a smoke-free bill late in the session that didn’t even get a hearing in committee, despite having passed the House last year. Bevin opposes a statewide ban.

Adams and Alvarado filed a bill to require insurance companies to pay for all evidence-based smoking cessation treatments in hopes of decreasing the state’s smoking rate, but it was filed late in the session and only brought up for discussion.

Democratic Rep. David Watkins, a retired physician from Henderson, filed three bills to decrease smoking in the state: one to increase the cigarette tax, one to raise the legal age for buying tobacco products to to 21, and one to require retail outlets to conceal tobacco products until a customer requests them. All were to no avail.

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, filed bills to continue the Kynect health-insurance exchange and the state’s current expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program. The bills passed mostly among party lines in the House, but the Senate has not voted on them as Senate President Robert Stivers said he would if the House did.

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