Health-related legislation proposed

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Three articles focus on three health issues before the legislature. Africa’s AIDS epidemic is being reflected in Minnesota’s African-born communities. A House committee passes medical marijuana use to the next level. And family planning providers ask for higher reimubrsement rates to help in preventing unwanted pregnancies.

African-born AIDS prevention
Africa’s AIDS epidemic is being reflected in Minnesota’s African-born communities. “This population is costly,” Rep. Neva Walker (DFL-Mpls) told the House Housing Policy and Finance and Public Health Finance Division March 14. “It’s costly to our economy, it’s costly to our government, it’s costly to our hospitals, it’s costly to our children, (and) it’s costly to our communities.”

Her bill, HF1723, would appropriate $300,000 for AIDS prevention work in Minnesota’s African-born communities. Approved by the division, the bill, which has no Senate companion, was sent to the House Finance Committee.

According to Dollina Odera, a consultant for the Minnesota AIDS Project, African immigrants represent only 1 percent of the population, but they comprise 16 percent of new HIV cases in the state. She said the challenge in preventing the spread of the disease has been overcoming issues persistent in their native countries: stigmas about sex and the virus and social inequities, particularly between men and women.

“We need to address the fears and misconceptions of HIV and AIDS,” she said. “And we have to draw members from the community to help.”

The one-time money would be geared toward “collaborative efforts that bring together nonprofit community-based groups with demonstrated experience in addressing the public health, health care and social service needs of African-born communities.”

Medical marijuana use
Legislation that would legalize the medical use of marijuana received a green vote from a House committee. Sponsored by Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth), HF655 would regulate who could supply, consume and grow the drug. Approved March 9 by the House and Health and Human Services Committee March 9, the bill was sent to the House Public Safety and Civil Justice Committee.

Federal law prohibits the use and sale of marijuana, though in recent years 11 states have passed laws permitting its use for medicinal purposes.

Proponents characterized the bill as “tightly-crafted.” They said it would allow physicians and other health care providers to prescribe the drug for “debilitating medical conditions” such as cancer, glaucoma, intractable pain and HIV. It would grant patients permission to grow the drug or to designate another person or nonprofit to produce it. It restricts the legal amount to 12 plants or 2.5 ounces per person. All users and producers would have to register with the state annually to be exempt from criminal penalties.

“We present this with the goal of helping sick and dying Minnesotans who are right now using marijuana to alleviate their pain and risking arrest to do it,” said Neal Levine, director of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care.

Opponents contested its medicinal efficacy and warned committee members of further spread of the drug.

“I believe if this bill is passed, it will lead to greater use by others who aren’t using it for medical reasons,” Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said.

Several members were also concerned with how one attains the seeds to grow the drug, given that the state would not supply them, and the unstated process of disposing of plants once legal rights to them have terminated.

“While you try to move this bill and make it as tight as possible, I still do think there are some significant holes in the bill,” said Rep. Laura Brod (R-New Prague).

A companion bill, SF345, sponsored by Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Preventing unintended pregnancies
The Minnesota Family Planning Program, implemented in 2006, was designed to help low-income women and men gain family planning services at affordable costs. Its purpose, according to the Department of Health, is to prevent unintended pregnancies, which they say account for half of all pregnancies statewide.

But testifiers speaking on behalf of HF298, which would appropriate $8 million in grants to the project, said MFPP has been problematic for clinics across Minnesota. Brian Russ, executive director of Annex Teen Clinic, told members of the House Health Care and Human Services Finance Division March 8 that they are losing money because reimbursement rates don’t satisfy the cost of care and that they must now educate people about the program at the expense of providing health care education.

“For many of us family planning providers, the program is not financially sustainable, and it is difficult for me to see how we will accomplish the goal of decreasing unintended pregnancies when the capacity of family planning providers is diminished,” Russ said.

The committee approved the bill, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth), and sent it to the House Housing Policy and Finance and Public Health Finance Division. Only one provision ó instructing the human services commissioner to adjust medical assistance reimbursement rates ó was in the committee’s purview.

Discussion turned to abortion as amendments were considered. Several members unsuccessfully tried to implement changes to the bill that would have prohibited or limited funding to family planning providers that offer abortion literature or resources.

A companion bill, SF184, sponsored by Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.