Ohio bill puts $35M toward infant, maternal health

Sweeping, bipartisan bill approved 72-19; awaits Senate consideration

A sweeping, locally-sponsored bill aiming to improve the health of Ohio infants and mothers moved one step closer to becoming law Wednesday with a 72-19 vote on the House floor.

The bipartisan legislation, dubbed the Strong Foundations Act and spearheaded by Kettering Republican Rep. Andrea White alongside Rep. Latyna Humphrey, D-Columbus, allocates $35 million over the next two years toward programs to improve infant and maternal health.

“This bill is about looking holistically at what Ohio needs to do to move the needle — truly move the needle — out of the bottom ranks to help our infants and our mothers who are dying at record numbers,” White told this news organization in an interview.

Throughout eight committee hearings in two separate House committees, the bill didn’t garner testimony from a single opponent, and likewise, no state representative stood on Wednesday to talk negatively about the bill, despite the 19 votes against it from Republicans.

White’s bill, which she admitted is not a silver bullet, is borne out of bleak maternal and infant health outcomes that are often cited at the Ohio Statehouse. Here’s a sample from her office, which she repeated on the House floor when vouching for her bill: Ohio is 44th in the country when it comes to infant mortality, with 1 in 150 babies dying before their first birthday. The outlook for Black babies is especially bleak, with an infant mortality rate of 13 per 1,000 (whereas white babies face a rate of 5.3).

In Montgomery County, recent state data showed that 60 babies died before their first birthday in 2023, a considerable uptick over the past few years. So far in 2024, 13 babies in that age group have passed.

H.B. 7 would create pilot programs that would get Ohio up to federal participation standards, which would in turn allow the state to unlock even more federal funds designated to help maternal and infant health. It would also use state funds to encourage more Ohioans to access existing federal funds that too often go unused, according to White.

“We’ve got to do something about this problem. I will tell you the time is now. It’s time that we break the cycle once and for all, and it’s going to take investments and commitment,” White told her colleagues on the House floor. “It’s a long game.”

What the bill would do

Here are the House Bill 7′s key provisions, along with how much they’ll cost:

• $6 million would be used to create pilot grants to get more infants and toddlers at or in child welfare systems or foster care involved in federally-partnered Early Head Start child care programs. White says the program has been shown to improve literacy and math outcomes for young children. She told this news organization that by increasing the state’s participation, Ohio will be able to access even more federal funds to widen the reach of Early Head Start.

• $4 million would go to cover the cost of H.B. 7′s provision to expand access to Early Intervention services by simplifying that any baby born preterm can qualify for Early Intervention, which intends to early detect development disabilities and delays in children.

• $8 million would go toward expanding access to Healthy Beginnings at Home, which provides stable housing for pregnant women and new mothers. White told this news organization that expanded access and the data that comes with it is requisite for the state to fully access available federal funds in the future.

• $4 million would go toward modernizing Ohio’s WIC system by allowing virtual enrollment and virtual re-ups. In White’s view, the bureaucratic hurdles to access WIC in Ohio has resulted in many qualifying families foregoing the system altogether. Data shows that only about half of qualifying families are enrolled in the federally-paid for program.

• $6 million would go toward expanding access to Help Me Grow home visitation programs by creating a screening process that connects lower income parents to educational and informational programs that have boosted outcomes in maternal and child health, reducing crime and domestic violence, and increasing family educational levels, among other things.

• $2 million would go toward new grants to establish partnerships between medical providers and legal assistance organizations to help resolve legal issues that often carry negative health consequences to young families, such as evictions.

• $3 million would go toward increasing access to prenatal education programs, including $1 million to begin the development of an educational, state-run app with prenatal and postnatal education and info surrounding Ohio’s WIC program.

• $2 million would go toward a community-based grant program to bolster infant vitality supports, such as crib distribution programs or smoking cessation programing.

• The bill would require the Ohio Department of Medicaid to recognize and reimburse mental health diagnoses and assessments for children from birth to five while increasing training opportunities to address adolescent mental health needs.

One of the bill’s supporters during committee was Butler County Educational Service Center Director Suzanne Prescott, who also serves as board president of the Ohio Head Start Association.

During committee hearings, one of the bill’s proponents was Butler County Educational Service Center Director Suzanne Prescott, who also serves as board president of the Ohio Head Start Association. She focused her testimony on the educational benefits of home visitations to pregnant women and new mothers, and the diagnostic benefit of home visitations of children up to age three, where professionals can interact with children and make sure they’re progressing properly.

But only 35% of eligible children in Butler County and 14% of eligible children in Preble County receive such visitations, in part due to a lack of state investment, Prescott testified.

“We must have more investment in comprehensive services for infant/toddlers and their families if we want to make a difference and help all Ohio Children thrive,” Prescott said.

Local ‘No’ votes

While no representatives spoke against H.B. 7 on the House floor, it did draw “no” votes from local state representatives. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton; Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester; Bill Dean, R-Xenia; and Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, voted against it.

After session, Carruthers told this news organization that she opposed the bill on several points, including that she believed the state’s budget for 2024 and 2025 made considerable investments into maternal and infant health and ought to be seen through.

Carruthers said she’s worried about how long the state would pay for H.B. 7′s programs. She also cited specific provisions she disliked, including the bill’s intent of allowing Ohioans to enroll in WIC online.

“I understand it’s easier, I do, I understand other states have it. But when you break into a drug house, the first thing the cops will tell you is you see WIC cards,” Carruthers said. “It makes it too easy, it’s rife with corruption.”

With H.B. 7′s passage, it now moves to the Senate, which offers no promise of support — especially as both chambers prepare for a summer break ahead of the November election. When this news organization asked White about her bill’s chances in the Senate, she replied, “I’m an eternal optimist.”

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Avery Kreemer can be reached at 614-981-1422, on X, via email, or you can drop him a comment/tip with the survey below.

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