East Tennessee legislators are considering a bill that would help bring more healthy babies into the world. On Monday SB 459, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), passed out the House Heath Subcommittee.
The legislation, also called the Safe Harbor Act 2013, offers encouragement and incentives to pregnant women who are addicted to drugs to seek treatment and prenatal care.
"Obviously the prescription drug abuse that we have here in Tennessee is enormous [and] is costing everyone lots of money," said House co-sponsor Representative Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville).
"Often times with legislation we try to use the 'stick,' we try to use punishment. This is the way to use a 'carrot,' to tell a woman who's made some mistakes who's misused prescription drugs that you can get on the straight and narrow," he said.
If passed, the bill allows priority prenatal care and drug treatment for pregnant women. If the patient starts the treatment at the beginning of her pregnancy and continues to maintain care and rehab, she will receive additional protections in exchange.
According to the bill,
"... the Department Children's Services shall not file any petition to terminate the mother's parental rights or otherwise seek protection of the newborn solely because of the patient's use of prescription drugs for non-medical purposes during the term of her pregnancy."
"It gives them help, it steers them in the right direction," Dunn said. "And as long as they keep working to get clean, then DCS is not going to step in, and DCS agrees with this bill, and we would all like to see it successful."
Hundreds of drug-dependent newborns are admitted to East Tennessee Children's Hospital each year, which now has an entire hall and core staff dedicated to their treatment.
"In about 28 months, we treated about 500 babies," explains Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Carla Saunders.
"The average daily census is 30 a day. That accounts [for] anywhere from 30 to 50 plus percent of our total NICU population."
She describes the grueling days for both the babies and the staff.
"It's very exhausting, and these children are suffering. They have uncontrollable crying and uncontrollable tremors, nausea, vomiting, severe stomach cramping."
Saunders travels the country speaking about this issue, including testimony in Nashville in support of the bill.
"It is not a solution for everyone, but there are women who have a problem who want help, who do not know where to turn or are extremely fearful that, if I tell anybody, I'm going to lose my child," she said. "And the worst thing that we can have happen is for these women to not receive prenatal care."
She adds, "We feel that there is no better opportunity to make a change, or for somebody to be motivated to make a change, than when they are pregnant or when a new life comes into this world."
Dunn says the bill will be heard before the full committee sometime next week.