The Pulse: Legislators Line Up Health Care Priorities

Jan 14, 2016

Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

A new General Assembly session is underway, and already the House and Senate are casting votes on critical issues. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Kristin Gourlay has been checking in with leaders in both bodies to find out what their health care legislation priorities are. 

Kristin joined news director Elisabeth Harrison to talk about how the issues they hope to tackle might affect you.

ELISABETH: Kristin, good morning.  I’m sure some people hear the general assembly is back in session and think ok – I’ll just wait to see what they get done toward the end. But you’re asking legislators right now what their priorities are and you’ve gotten some answers. What are some of the pressing health issues?

KRISTIN: I’m hearing one constant drum beat on this – that lawmakers’ first priority is to do more to stem the state’s opioid overdose and addiction crisis. I’ve spoken with Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick,  Cranston), who chairs the House Health, Education, and Welfare committee, and he says this year there’s an even greater sense of urgency because lawmakers themselves have been touched by this epidemic. Here he is talking about a couple of recent high school graduates lost to overdose.

McNamara: "We’ve lost a couple of people in my community, two of whom I knew personally.”

McNamara says he’s working on a bill that would expand access to treatment for addicts, and more.

McNamara: "And it also increases training for doctors and clinicians that can prescribe painkilling medication that in many cases has led to this heroin addiction," said McNamara.

McNamara mentioned wanting to give doctors the authority to hold addicts against their will and place them in treatment, but this idea was really controversial in Massachusetts.

ELISABETH: So you also bent the ear of Sen. Josh Miller  (D-Cranston) who chairs the senate Health and Human Services to find out what he plans to promote this session. Will he try for legalizing marijuana again?

KRISTIN: Yes. But he said at this point it’s about not only economic development, lining the state’s pockets with some tax revenue, but channeling some of that revenue into programs for people who are addicted to opioids. Here’s how he put it.

Miller: “I see it as a way to address an overdose crisis. You take a drug that has no fatalities historically and you apply the revenue from taxing and regulating marijuana and you put it towards treatment and recovery for a drug that has a serious health implication for our state.”

Of course he’s talking about opioids. Prescription painkillers and now mostly heroin have taken hundreds of lives in Rhode Island over the past five years, and lawmakers and state agencies are working on turning the trend around.

ELISABETH: Kristin Gourlay, beyond drugs, there’s a lot more for lawmakers to consider in health care this session. What about the governor’s commissions – there were a lot – on reforming Medicaid, and inventing a new office for health policy?

KRISTIN: Yes, some of the recommendations to come out of these committees may require some enabling legislation. Senator Josh Miller is looking at those. And Senator Lou DiPalma (D-Little Compton, Middletown, Tiverton, and Newport) also has his eye on these initiatives. He wants to make sure they do what they say they’re going to do. He sent me a list of his legislative priorities, and here are a few of them:

He wants to continue oversight of the state’s troubled child welfare agency, DCYF. He’s also looking at the governor’s efforts to trim more than $70 million dollars in savings from Medicaid – how it’s going, whether it’s on target, and more. Another project he’s got his eye on is called UHIP – it’s the single computer platform for everyone to sign up for Medicaid or food stamps or other benefits. Building it has cost a lot more than expected, so DiPalma and other senators will be asking why throughout the session.

ELISABETH: Kristin, what are you hearing from residents, citizens? What do they want their lawmakers to fix or tackle when it comes to health care?

KRISTIN: I ran a very short, very un-scientific survey to gather some data on public attitudes. From the few responses we received, I can tell you that almost everyone is considered with the cost of health care. Co-pays, deductibles are pricing some people out of the care they need. One person wrote in concerned about access to health care providers in rural areas and the limited hours. That’s consistent with the findings from a recent inventory the health department took of every health care institution, clinic, provider in the state. The conclusion is we’re short primary care doctors and lacking a bit in convenience of access. I’m not sure how or if lawmakers plan to address that.