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Ky. “momnibus” bill is bipartisan. But GOP lawmakers surprised Democrats with contentious update

Democratic Representatives Rachel Roarx, Lindsey Burke and Adrielle Camuel return to their seats after walking out on discussion of a bill to encourage perinatal palliative care in Kentucky.
Sylvia Goodman
Democratic Reps. Rachel Roarx, Lindsey Burke and Adrielle Camuel returned to their seats after walking out to protest a bill on perinatal palliative care in early March. Now, that bill is back in a different proposal.

The Kentucky Legislature’s “momnibus” bill wasn’t controversial. But a new version of it incorporates a different proposal Democrats walked out over earlier this month.

A contentious proposal supported by anti-abortion activists was added to a bipartisan maternal health bill late last week in an unexpected move that Democrats and the League of Women Voters of Kentucky consider indicative of a larger problem with transparency.

“I think this is extraordinarily sad because this momnibus bill, in its original form, is an amazing bill that will help women in the commonwealth,” Democratic state Sen. Karen Berg of Louisville told LPM.

House Bill 10, dubbed the “momnibus” bill, grew out of discussions by Republican and Democratic women in the legislature and would make widely supported policy changes, such as ensuring patients can sign up for health insurance coverage when they become pregnant.

The new, substitute version of the bill — as first reported by Alex Acquisto in the Lexington Herald-Leader — still includes those popular provisions. But it also adds language from House Bill 467 that would require hospitals, alternative birthing centers and midwives to refer patients with nonviable pregnancies to perinatal palliative care programs that provide support and services if they carry to term.

“I don't believe any of the Democratic sponsors were aware that there was going to be a committee substitute. And they certainly didn't give us any notice that there were going to be the sorts of significant and controversial changes to the bill that we saw,” said Democratic state Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong of Louisville, who is not a bill sponsor.

Offering perinatal palliative care to patients isn’t controversial in and of itself. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for example, recommends doctors inform patients with a nonviable pregnancy of palliative care as one of several options — including abortion — they can choose.

HB 467’s proponents include Addia Wuchner of the anti-abortion group Kentucky Right to Life, who has said the bill is focused on giving women options other than terminating their pregnancy.

The bill’s opponents include Tamarra Wieder, the Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood, who warned the proposal would “put a chilling effect” on health care providers and discourage them from talking to patients with nonviable pregnancies about seeking an abortion out-of-state.

Abortion is illegal in Kentucky unless the patient’s life is at serious risk.

Chambers Armstrong said she was part of the working group that developed the momnibus bill and was excited to vote for it.

"It has so many great things in it designed to reduce our maternal mortality... increased access to mental health resources, lactation support, doulas, all kinds of really wonderful things," she said.

But Chambers Armstrong doesn't support the provisions added from HB 467. She said they appear designed to try to "coerce women who have pregnancies that have no chance of survival to stay pregnant."

The Senate Health Services Committee unanimously agreed Thursday to clear the updated HB 10 to come before the full Senate for a vote. The committee’s only Democrats, Chambers Armstrong and Berg, both told LPM they weren’t aware HB 467 had essentially been added to HB 10 when they voted to advance it in committee.

During Thursday’s meeting, Republican state Rep. Kim Moser of Taylor Mill — HB 10’s lead sponsor — said the new version added “perinatal palliative care” but did not specify that this part of the bill had been pulled from HB 467.

Moser is also a sponsor of HB 467 alongside Republican state Rep. Nancy Tate of Brandenburg, who likewise co-sponsored the momnibus bill and sat alongside Moser at Thursday’s meeting. Tate has been a prominent sponsor of anti-abortion legislation in recent years.

LPM sent Moser email and phone messages Monday seeking comment but had not received a comment by deadline.

Berg said she voted for the updated version of HB 10 Thursday based on her trust in Moser. “And that was my mistake. I should not have done that,” she said.

It’s the norm for the legislature to introduce and adopt substitutes in committee hearings without making them publicly available in advance. The League of Women Voters of Kentucky wants to see that legislative policy changed.

Becky Jones, a legislative liaison for the League, told LPM if legislators “are truly seeking transparency and robust discussion,” then they wouldn’t have slipped language from HB 467 into the broadly popular momnibus bill “without open and obvious notice.”

She noted that HB 467 hadn’t moved much in the legislature. It passed a committee vote early this month but hasn’t come up for a vote by the full House, while the momnibus bill unanimously passed the House already.

Putting language from a bill that is stalling out into legislation that already has momentum is one tactic lawmakers sometimes use to try to get a proposal passed into law.

“It seems that, from the public's perspective, it's less than transparent to take a bill that is not equally supported in a bipartisan way and put it into a bill such as House Bill 10 to move it along,” Jones said.

The League wants the legislature to give Kentuckians at large a chance to read substitute versions of bills before they’re introduced in a House or Senate committee.

“It's not available online in real time,” she said of substitute legislation. “And so it's hard to be as equally informed as the sponsors who are sitting there talking about the bill.”

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.
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