Lawmakers return to Raleigh with health policy wish lists

Lawmakers return to Raleigh with health policy wish lists

By Rose Hoban

Amid the smiles, photographs, receptions and family members crowding the legislative building in Raleigh on Wednesday, lawmakers involved in the making of health care policy said they were readying their lists of priorities for the legislative biennium that began this week.

The topmost issue on both sides of the aisle? The seemingly perennial issue of the past decade: whether North Carolina would ever join the majority of states and expand the Medicaid program to provide coverage for more than half a  million low income workers. 

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) highlighted Medicaid expansion in an address after being elected as leader for the seventh time since 2011, saying it was one of the issues the legislature “must tackle.”

“I support expanding Medicaid in North Carolina,” he told a capacity crowd in the Senate chamber.

Berger spent a decade opposed to the measure, but he changed his stance in 2022. He shepherded his bill through the Senate last year, only to have it hit a dead end in the House of Representatives. 

“We must recognize that it is not a silver bullet,” he continued. “North Carolinians are saddled with some of the highest health care costs in the country. We need to eliminate regulatory red tape and other bureaucratic barriers that impede access to care and unnecessarily increase medical costs.”

Berger’s 2022 Medicaid expansion bill also included provisions that would 1) overhaul rules around hospital competition in North Carolina and 2) give advanced practice nurses more latitude to work independently of physicians.

In a media gathering after the swearing-in ceremony, Berger reiterated his position. 

“In order to get … the broad bipartisan support that we had for the Medicaid expansion bill that we had before, there have got to be some measures that address the supply side,” he told reporters. “If you’re going to give 500,000, 600,000 people an insurance card that says they have a right to have their medical care paid for, then we need to do something to hopefully open up more access to more primary care providers, more facilities where they can be treated.” 

Old differences could reemerge, though, as members of the House and Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain), the re-elected House speaker, talked about a “clean” Medicaid expansion bill that does not include mention of nurses or hospitals. 

Rep. Donny Lambeth (R–Winston-Salem) acknowledged that some of Berger’s concerns will need to be addressed before the two chambers come to any agreement. House committee assignments have not been announced, but Lambeth has been a key player from the House in committees with members from both legislative chambers tackling health care issues.

“I think we have to do the certificate of need reform,” he said, referring to the laws on hospital competition. “So my second bill will be a certificate of need bill that I’ve been working on with the industry. And I think we’ve got to get that one done in order to do expansion.

“That was kind of the Senate feedback.”

Mental health on many minds

Republicans and Democrats noted the importance of addressing mental health needs across the state. 

Lambeth said he recently attended a forum on mental health best practices with representatives Carla Cunningham (D-Charlotte), a nurse, and Wayne Sasser (R-Albemarle), a pharmacist. Lambeth said they were interested in implementing some things other states are doing.

“I think we need more psychologists in schools, because I think we need to reach out to these kids and listen to these kids in a more proactive way,” Lambeth said. “We’ve talked about having more guidance counselors and psychologists in schools, and we’ve done a little bit of that. But I do think we need more.”

Lambeth also would like the legislature to consider funding mental health crisis centers.

“We’ve seen suicide rates grow exponentially in the last several years, and COVID did not help anything,” said Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Apex), who is a social worker and family law attorney. She’s been appointed to the Senate Health Care Committee. 

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) said he’s planning on pushing for Medicaid expansion again this year, but continues to insist the measure be combined with “supply side” measures to loosen restrictions on advanced practice nurses and increase hospital competition. Credit: Rose Hoban

“Children are sitting in hospitals for way too long not having appropriate placements,” Batch said. “We have a mental health crisis in the foster care system. And then also just within our schools every single day, we need to actually have mental health professionals seeing the children, identifying them and addressing their needs.”

Batch filed a bill in the last session that would have given mental health providers treatment spaces in schools, prioritizing children who lack health insurance or a regular care provider.

“My real concern is that… everybody’s talking mental health, but we just say the same redundant words over and over again,” said Rep. Donna White (R-Clayton), a nurse who has played a key role in shaping legislative health care policies. “We just don’t try to find out what’s causing the mental health issues in our young people.”

Lists are long

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Valdese) said that during the swearing-in festivities he started jotting down on a scrap of paper a list of priorities that he wants to work on in the coming biennium. House committee assignments haven’t been announced, but Blackwell said he expects to again be appointed to health care committees. 

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Valdese) shows off the list of legislative priorities he jotted down during the swearing-in ceremonies at the legislative building on Wednesday. Credit: Rose Hoban

At the top of that list were mental health issues, but he ticked off a number of other topics, including getting patient information at state-operated health care facilities onto electronic health records.

Another one of his concerns was about staffing in health care. 

“I think, at Broughton Hospital, for example… that we’ve got maybe over 100 beds that are not being used that could be, because we haven’t got the staffing for it,” Blackwell said. 

Last year, leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services signaled to lawmakers that they faced significant staffing shortages across all of their divisions, including in state-operated hospitals. 

Sen. Jim Perry (R-Kinston) also had health care workforce issues on his mind, and he mentioned the shortage of child care workers. 

“The availability of workforce, qualified individuals to work in those facilities, [of] affordability — wages have just gone through the roof,” Perry said. “We’ve got to try to figure some things out… have a healthy workforce. Mom and Dad got to have someone taking care of the kids so they can go to work.”

Other health care topics that topped lawmakers’ lists included:

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