Legislation to combat neonatal abstinence syndrome good for mothers, newborns

How opioid addiction is changing health care at the University of Kentucky

The opioid abuse epidemic is changing the way the University of Kentucky provides health care as it tries to contain costs and save lives.
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The opioid abuse epidemic is changing the way the University of Kentucky provides health care as it tries to contain costs and save lives.

The Kentucky General Assembly is dedicated to making Kentucky the gold standard in how we approach the most vulnerable children. Our commitment began in 2017 when a bipartisan work group began researching comprehensive adoption and foster care reforms. During that time there was input and participation from many members of the General Assembly and outside organizations. The result of that extensive research was the passage of major reforms to our child welfare system by the 2018 General Assembly, and we continue work on this issue as we look at areas to improve. It’s a passion we both share, and there is no issue we have dedicated more time and attention to than the welfare of our children and families.

With that said, a recent Op-Ed published in the Herald-Leader requires us to correct wild misinformation circulated to the general public. In her opinion piece, “New Kentucky law puts newborns exposed to opioids at risk by punishing pregnant women,” Rachel Keller Landis falsely claims that House Bill 1 from the 2018 legislative session “expands the definition of child abuse in Kentucky to include neonatal abstinence syndrome.” That is patently false.

Landis’ Op-Ed completely misses the mark. Her allegation that this bill would create criminal punishment for mothers who give birth to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) babies is false. In fact, there is no such language in the final version of HB 1.

The bill that overwhelmingly passed in 2018 states that if a child is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome as a result of drug abuse, the mother has 90 days to enroll in drug treatment. If that does not occur, there are grounds for the termination of parental rights. This portion of the bill was aimed at encouraging mothers to get help with addiction, so that both they and their children can get on the road to living happy, healthy lives.

Contrary to what was expressed, HB 1 did not create criminal consequences for opioid abuse during pregnancy.

The epidemic of so many children being born straight into withdrawal from NAS is a growing plague on our society and cause for great alarm. Data from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services indicates that neonatal abstinence syndrome has exploded here in Kentucky since the turn of the century, rising from impacting just 46 babies in 2001 to 1,115 babies born with this horrific condition in 2016. That is why we sought to incentivize parents to enter substance abuse treatment and recovery programs, in hopes that we can help save not only their children, but their own lives as well.

This portion of House Bill 1 was based on the suggestions of the finest neonatal care physicians in Kentucky. And overall, House Bill 1 was the result of almost two years of research from some of the best physicians, nurses, judges, social workers and child welfare organizations that our state and nation have to offer. It is perhaps the most thoroughly vetted piece of legislation to come through the General Assembly in many years.

Landis also states that the law is about to take effect in July 2019. But HB 1 already became law in July of 2018, and it is working. According to various judges, HB 1 has already been used to get mothers suffering from opioid addiction into treatment.

Our bipartisan reforms were centered on doing what is best for the children of our state who have spent time in state care and faced obstacles such as NAS. That also means doing what is best for mothers facing addiction. We took action to help mothers receive successful treatment - proving that prioritizing the health of newborns and mothers can and should be parallel goals.

We greatly appreciate Landis’ interest in the health of mothers and children, as well as her passion for helping those who are facing significant obstacles. We hope that she, and anyone else with an interest in this topic, will reach out to us in the future with their thoughts on significant legislation to help our children and families.

While consequences, like the termination of parental rights, are an important component of helping both mothers and their children deal with a harmful addiction, we also know that treatment is just as important. That philosophy not only guided our efforts in House Bill 1, but will also serve as the foundation for tackling the drug epidemic in the years to come.

Rep. David Meade of Stanford is the Speaker Pro-Tempore in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Rep. Joni Jenkins of Shively is the House Minority Whip. They can be contacted at David.Meade@lrc.ky.gov and Joni.Jenkins@lrc.ky.gov.

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