SALT LAKE CITY — From Medicaid to medical marijuana, lawmakers tackled several thorny issues this year that might have had big impacts on patients and families.
Some actions were passed and are ready for the governor's signature. But others were the start of a conversation that will continue this year and beyond.
Medical marijuana may have been the most public example, but issues like end-of-life legislation are also part of a “broader discussion about patient-centered care and patients' rights to drive their destiny,” said Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake.
On some issues, like the growing prescription painkiller epidemic, legislators were quick to take action.
Sam Plumb, a program coordinator for a group that is tackling opioid addiction in Utah, marveled that Republican and Democratic lawmakers were united on the issue.
"It was a great example of how the government can come together and work towards a better solution," Plumb said.
On other topics, like medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion, legislators took a cautious approach. Some of that go-slow or independent-minded approach is characteristic of Utah, said Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber.
“When we did seatbelts for kids, that took quite a few years in the state of Utah,” McOmber said. “The helmet law in Utah took quite a few years. But those are public health issues and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to work through them and get everybody on board. That’s part of what Utah is.”
Of all the bills proposed, lawmakers passed a minority.
Chavez-Houck said that's not necessarily a bad thing. It can take several years to "move things along the continuum" on emotionally charged issues, like end-of-life issues, she said.
But it also means that lawmakers can sometimes lag behind the public.
“There’s a benefit to being thoughtful with developing public policy and not rushing,” Chavez-Houck said. “… But there are people’s lives in the wake too, and when I think about that, it pains me.”
Here’s a look at the decisions that may affect your family this year.
If there has been one public health crisis that has gripped the attention of elected officials in the past few years, it’s the opioid epidemic.
Legislators this year were quick to pass a group of bills that will expand access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
One bill would allow anybody to distribute naloxone so long as they teach recipients how to administer it. Also known by its brand name Narcan, naloxone is known to be a safe and effective way to save someone from overdosing.
Another bill allows people to get naloxone kits without a prescription from pharmacies.
“Basically, you can take an army of two and turn it into an army of everyone," said Utah Naloxone program coordinator Sam Plumb.
He said the organization has recorded 32 confirmed overdose reversals since 2014.
Lawmakers also appropriated $250,000 to an opioid addiction pilot program to the Utah Department of Health and passed — with little controversy — a bill that legalizes needle exchanges in Utah.
“In a way, it was really heartening in a time of such polarization when it comes to politics and in a very typically conservative state, that these legislators looked at an issue that is truly an issue of epidemic proportions and said, ‘You know what, this isn’t about being bipartisan,’” Plumb said.
When it came to abortion, lawmakers passed a bill that requires doctors to administer anesthesia to a fetus, through the mother, for abortions after 20 weeks of gestation.
OB-GYNs and maternal-fetal medicine specialists opposed the bill, calling it scientifically unsound and medically risky.
But members of Pro-Life Utah, a coalition of local organizations that oppose abortion celebrated the bill's passage. The group plans to propose more legislation next year that will continue to target abortions.
Voices were also raised when it came to workplace issues for both employers and employees.
Lawmakers passed a version of a bill that at first sought to eliminate a company's right to have employees sign non-compete agreements, which are designed to prevent employees from taking their training and company strategies directly to competitors. The issue was controversial in the business community and those who thought it threatend to change the narrative away from Utah's reputation as a pro-business, economically vibrant state.
The version of the bill that ultimately passed did not ban non-compete agreements outright but limited such contracts to one year.
What lies ahead
Medical marijuana was one of the most controversial and time-consuming debates of this year’s legislative session. Neither of the two bills debated were brought for a final floor vote, nor was a last-ditch attempt to permit Utah research institutions to study the drug.
That means no change for patients who were seeking medical cannabis as relief for ailments.
But patient advocacy group TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education) said it plans to redouble its efforts next year by starting a political action committee.
It also is considering a ballot initiative for 2017.
“It’s not meant to be a gun to the head,” TRUCE Executive Director Christine Stenquist said.
But “the ballot initiative is a guarantee for patients and that’s what needs to stay in place," she said.
Medical marijuana’s most visible champion, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said he plans to do as much as he can to pass comprehensive medical cannabis legislation before he moves out of the state.
Lawmakers didn't do much on a group of e-cigarette bills that would have taxed the industry and raised the age limit for use to 21.
A surge in e-cigarette use, particulary among youth, has alarmed public health officials in Utah and nationwide. Although e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, doctors and public health officials are concerned about teens being exposed to the nicotine and unknown chemicals in e-juice.
Despite strong backing from the Utah Department of Health and even students who voiced support, all three bills languished.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said his proposal to tax e-cigarette products would have passed if it hadn’t debuted in an unfavorable committee — the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
“Had I got it to the floor, I would have had the votes,” Ray said.
A bill that would have required parents to watch a 20-minute educational video before exempting their children from vaccinations also met with resistance.
Its sponsor, Rep. Carol Sackman Moss, D-Salt Lake, said she was surprised by the outcry, particularly when the bill was supported by several physicians on her committee and the Utah Department of Health.
Supporters said the bill was necessary to educate parents on what to do in the case of an outbreak. But in emotional testimony, many parents argued the bill was meant to punish them for exempting their children from immunizations.
“I guess that optimism was a little bit misplaced,” Moss said. “It turned into a parental rights issue. It got off course.”
She said she wants to bring the bill up again next year, though she is unsure what could be done differently.
A topic that could have been just as contentious as the others — if not more so — never made it to the floor.
For the second year in a row, lawmakers referred to end of life legislation to the interim session for study. The labels associated with any legislation are in themselves controversial: "right to die" "physician-assisted suicide" and “death with dignity," can twist the conversations around the issues.
Chavez-Houck called these issues “heavy lifts” because they are legally and emotionally complex.