Safe Harbor Bill To Protect Infants Wins Passage In Senate Health And Welfare Committee

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Legislation which aims to improve health outcomes for infants born to drug-addicted mothers won passage in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.  

Senate Bill 459, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), encourages pregnant women who misuse prescription opioids to access early prenatal care and drug rehabilitation. In exchange, they would be given a safe harbor from having their parental rights terminated through a petition filed by the Department of Children’s Services due to prenatal drug abuse. The safe harbor only applies if the mother meets certain requirements set out in the bill to protect the health of the fetus.

“The Safe Harbor Act of 2013 provides a woman with a strong incentive to do the right thing for her baby,” said Sen. Yager. “Children are the innocent victims of the prescription drug epidemic. Early prenatal intervention can help stabilize the mother and hopefully curb the number of premature births or deaths and a host of other severe symptoms the drugs can have on the baby.” 

Addiction to opiates can result in the infant having Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which occurs when the mother’s drugs are cut off at birth. NAS can cause the infant to have poor nervous system irritability, tremors, weight loss, stiff muscles, seizures, inconsolable crying and gastrointestinal disorders. 

Carla Saunders, a neonatal nurse practitioner and advance practice coordinator for the Pediatrics Medical Group at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, told committee members their hospital is averaging about one baby per day born with NAS.  She said NAS babies often require ongoing medical care costing an average of $40,000 before they are released from the hospital.  This is in addition to later healthcare costs, additional school needs and social services to ensure that they reach their maximal potential through childhood. 

The Safe Harbor provision only applies if the mother is seen by an obstetrician provider within the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy who determines that she has used prescription drugs that could jeopardize the fetus.  After being referred to treatment, the woman must begin drug abuse or drug dependence treatment before her next regularly scheduled prenatal visit, and maintain compliance with both her prenatal care and substance abuse rehabilitation through the pregnancy.  The bill requires treating physicians to give priority at public treatment centers to pregnant women seeking care through provisions of the legislation.
“As many law enforcement folks have said about the broader substance abuse epidemic, we cannot arrest our way out of the problem,” said Tennessee Commissioner of Health John Dreyzehner, who also testified before the Senate Health Committee.  “I don’t think we benefit mother or child by discouraging her from seeking prenatal care in any way.”
Mr. Dreyzehner said approximately 60 percent of the 90 NAS cases reported so far this year in Tennessee are women who are in some type of medically supervised therapy. 
Sen. Yager, who sponsored two laws passed during the 107th General Assembly to curb prescription drug abuse, said the bill dovetails with the Haslam Administration’s ongoing efforts to identify and curb the over-prescription of opiates. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

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