Watson Bill Seeks to Close Mandated Reporter Loophole Affecting Opioid-Dependent Infants
HARRISBURG – To help ensure that babies who are born dependent on controlled substances are safely cared for and receive critical medical and developmental services, Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks/144th) is introducing legislation in the state House that would close a loophole in the reporting of such cases to proper authorities.

“When the General Assembly updated the law regarding the mandatory reporting of babies born to mothers with substance abuse issues, medical professionals involved in the delivery or care of a substance-exposed infant were exempt from having to report those cases to child welfare agencies,” Watson said. “That change was made to reflect situations in which mothers, during their pregnancy, were using legally prescribed narcotics, such as oxycodone or methadone, under the supervision of a medical professional.

“However, as the opioid crisis continues, hundreds of newborns are born dependent on opioids, and yet young children are sent home with parents who are incapable of caring for them due to their addiction,” Watson continued. “As a result, we must revisit this law and take appropriate action to ensure that the proper authorities are notified and supply whatever services may be needed to ensure the health and welfare of these infants and any other children living in the home.”

Under current state law, health care professionals, however, must report to child welfare authorities if the child, under age 1, is affected by illegal substance abuse by the child’s mother; experiences withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure (unless the child’s mother was under medical care for the drug); or is born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“This legislation would put the safety of infants first,” Watson explained. “Our state’s laws should not allow the sending of any substance-exposed newborns – or any newborn, for that matter – home with mothers who by virtue of their substance abuse disorder are unable to properly care for the infant or who may put the infant in serious danger.”

Essentially, the Watson bill seeks to close a significant gap in the reporting of such cases. According to startling statistics from Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, 2,100 newborns born to mothers on the Medicaid rolls in 2016 were diagnosed with symptoms of withdrawal from narcotics, but only 972 of those infants were reported to child protective services. (The only data collected is on mothers covered by Medicaid. No agency collects substance-exposed newborn data on the privately insured, so the total number of substance-exposed infants in the Commonwealth is unknown.)

Finally, the bill would end the confusion that exists among health care providers as to when they are required to report these cases. Removing the exemption would further allow Pennsylvania to fully comply with other relevant state and federal laws.

Watson is the chairman of the House Children and Youth Committee, which has held hearings over the past few months to examine the scope of the opioid crisis’ youngest victims. She has also authored House Bill 235, which would create a special task force to improve the safety, well-being and permanency of substance-exposed infants and other young children affected by their parents’ substance abuse disorders.

That legislation, which is now with the Senate for consideration, would call for members of the task force to include experts in obstetric medicine, pediatric medicine, neonatal intensive care nursing, behavioral health treatment, early invention programs, county Children and Youth Agency services or child advocacy.

“Mandated reporters throughout the health care field should have consistency with respect to notifying authorities when children are at risk,” Watson said. “Our ultimate goal is the protection of infants and children, and that’s why this legislation – along with a task force dedicated to this crisis – is so desperately needed. Our children are depending on us.”

House Bill 1707 is awaiting referral to a House standing committee for review.

Representative Kathy Watson
144th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Media Contact:  Jennifer Keaton
KathyWatson144.com / Facebook.com/RepWatson
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