Health bills were among those that passed (some with overrides of vetoes) and failed in the last two days of the legislative session

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The Republican legislature overrode more than two dozen of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes Wednesday and Thursday, including a wide-ranging abortion bill that was immediately challenged in court and another that sets new rules for public-assistance programs, including Medicaid.

The General Assembly ended its session after passing a number of health-related bills on a wide range of topics, including youth mental health, increased access to mental health and addiction recovery care, a behavioral-health pilot program for low-level offenders, postpartum care for low-income Kentuckians, research into medical marijuana, and the recruitment and retention of health-care providers.

The anti-abortion measure, House Bill 3, bans mailing of medications that have become the means for most abortions in Kentucky, strengthens parental-consent rules and bans abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy, mimicking a Mississippi law that is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Beshear said he vetoed the bill because there were no exemptions for rape or incest, also noting that it is likely unconstitutional, among other reasons.

Kentucky’s only abortion providers said they had to stop conducting the procedure because other restrictions and reporting requirements in the 72-page bill went into effect as soon as it was finally passed because of an emergency clause.

EMW Women’s Surgical Services and Planned Parenthood, both in Louisville, have each filed federal lawsuits challenging the new law and are asking a judge to suspend it.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky said in a news release, “The lawsuits argue that the law would create unnecessary abortion requirements while simultaneously making those requirements impossible to comply with given the immediate effective date of the law, forcing providers in the state to stop offering abortion services. Because the law is impossible to comply with, it amounts to a de facto abortion ban, thus violating patients’ federal right to abortion under Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 Supreme Court decision creating a constitutional right to abortion before a fetus can live outside the womb.

Lawmakers also overruled Beshear’s veto of HB 7, a public-assistance reform bill aimed at reducing fraud and getting able-bodied adults without dependents back into the workplace. Beshear vetoed the bill because, among other things, he said it will result in making it harder for people who need the benefits to get them and will result in people losing benefits.

Health bills that passed in the last days of session

HB 44, sponsored by Bobby McCool, R-Van Lear (Johnson County), allows local school boards to include mental health as a reason for an excused absence. Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, praised the passage of this bill, noting that it came from students at several Kentucky schools. This bill also removed part of a new law that would have created criminal penalties for teachers who didn’t teach racial history the way called for by the new law, Senate Bill 1, also passed over a veto.

Senate Bill 102, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, requires local school superintendents to provide a yearly census of all school-based mental-health providers and their duties to the state Department of Education, not just a list of school counselors.

SB 90, sponsored by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton, creates a pilot program to divert some qualifying low-level offenders away from jail and into treatment for substance-use disorder or mental-health issues.

Negotiated in a late House-Senate conference committee, the bill gives the project $11 million a year from the settlement that Kentucky and other states received from opioid manufacturers and distributors.

HB 573, sponsored by Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, establishes the Healthcare Worker Loan Relief Program for qualifying health-care workers with jobs that require four-year degrees. This program is meant to help recruit and retain healthcare workers in rural and underserved areas of Kentucky.

The program would be aligned with the Kentucky State Loan Repayment Program and administered by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Excellence in Rural Health. The budget has $2 million in each fiscal year from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the last pandemic-relief bill.

SB 178, sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, ended up being a catch-all bill for several health-related issues. It requires Medicaid to provide coverage to new mothers up to 12 months after giving birth; sets new rules for certification of alcohol and drug counselors; allows licensed narcotic treatment programs to use buprenorphine products to treat patients; and requires third-party oversight over the state’s single Medicaid pharmacy benefit manager; and bars termination of parental rights of a mother whose child suffers from neonatal abstinence syndrome if the mother agrees, prior to discharge from the hospital, to participate in a court-ordered treatment program that includes peer supports.

HB 604, sponsored by Moser, also became a catch-all bill that at its core establishes the Kentucky Center for Cannabis Research at the University of Kentucky. The budget allocates $2 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 to start the center. Other health provisions in this bill create the mobile crisis services fund and to the Commonwealth West Healthcare Workforce Innovation Center.

Health bills that got stuck in the Senate

HB 136, sponsored by Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, which would have legalized medical cannabis in Kentucky did not gain any traction in the Senate after passing out of the House. Senate President Robert Stivers has long said that he believes more research is needed before such a bill should pass.

HB 354, sponsored by Rep. Russell Webber, R-Shepherdsville, would have created a path for Kentucky’s advanced practice registered nurses to prescribe controlled substances independently. “I’m sure that bill will come back some time in the future,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer in the closing hours of the session.

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