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Eric Tarr

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, explains why he sponsored a bill providing women better access to birth control on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, in Charleston. The Senate approved the bill, Senate Bill 288. 

CHARLESTON — Legislators on Friday approved two measures that would make birth control more accessible to women in West Virginia.

At least one of the bills legislators passed Friday was crafted as part of an effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies for women suffering from substance abuse.

Senators approved Senate Bill 288 in a 31-0 vote, with three senators absent.

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who sponsored the bill, said its goal is to make accessing birth control easier for women addicted to drugs.

“People that are in the active throes of addiction have impaired decision-making and sometimes circumstances, because some of these women are trafficked or they’re trading sex for drugs that result in these pregnancies,” Tarr said. “Combined with the use of illicit drugs, (the pregnancies) lead to exposing these unborn children to harmful illicit substances.”

Among the bill’s provisions is that the state Bureau of Medical Services can’t require pre-authorization or a certain number of doctor visits before a woman can obtain birth control — unless the visits are medically necessary.

The bill also would require the Bureau of Public Health to make long-term birth control available to doctors without any upfront costs to the doctors.

The Bureau of Public Health also would have to begin reporting the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome in newborns to legislators.

A few minutes after the Senate approved SB 288, the House of Delegates approved House Bill 4198 by a margin of 88-5, with seven delegates absent.

If it becomes law, House Bill 4198 will make it so women can receive a 12-month prescription of a particular birth control at one time, regardless of how the medicine is administered. Currently, state law only allows women to get six months’ worth of contraceptives at one time.

Del. Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, was the lead sponsor of the bill. Pyles said he proposed the measure after hearing from his constituents they had trouble obtaining their medicine.

“It’s just folks who talked to me about different things, and I follow their lead,” Pyles said.

Back in the Senate, Tarr said he was inspired to propose SB 288 after visiting the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital, where he saw babies being treated for neonatal abstinence syndrome and spoke with their mothers and health care providers.

Babies who have NAS have been exposed to addictive substances, whether illegal or prescription, in the womb.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the rate of babies with NAS in West Virginia was five times higher than the national rate in 2014, Tarr said.

In 2014, 51.2 out of every 1,000 babies born in West Virginia were diagnosed with NAS. Nationwide, 10.7 out of every 1,000 babies were diagnosed with NAS, Tarr said.

Mothers and hospital staff made Tarr aware of a program where the mothers had access to birth control and related health care very soon after giving birth, which he said wasn’t effective in preventing pregnancies, in part because of the physical trauma of giving birth.

He said he learned that better access to birth control in general is what could be most helpful in preventing unwanted pregnancies and the potential suffering of babies diagnosed with NAS.

The long-term effects of NAS aren’t fully known, but Tarr said some of the known effects can be “devastating consequences on children’s well-being.”

“The intent of this legislation … is for West Virginia to take a proactive approach to preventing exposure of unborn children to illicit substances by outreach, education, facilitation and provisions of convenient, free and effective pregnancy prevention for people at risk of pregnancy in drug addiction,” Tarr said.

House Bill 4198 will advance to the Senate, and Senate Bill 288 will advance to the House.

Reach Lacie Pierson at lacie.pierson@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.

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