Nancy Hoffman, the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services state coordinator, speaks during an interim meeting earlier this month. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Today the West Virginia House of Delegates moved the Governor’s personal income tax cut plan to third reading, meaning it could pass the chamber as soon as tomorrow before facing an uncertain future in the Senate. Also, a look at infant mortality rates in West Virginia compared to the nation. But first, a bill to help victims of sexual assault moves through committee without funding.

A mandate to increase access to sexual assault exams

When someone is sexually assaulted, the next step is often to head to a hospital or medical center for an exam. These forensic tests, also called “rape kits,” are performed by trained health care workers and are important for the health of the victim, as well as for the prosecution of the perpetrator.

But in West Virginia, only three northern counties have the resources necessary to perform these exams at a high level consistently, according to Nancy Hoffman, the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services state coordinator. This means many West Virginians have to drive for hours to access this basic type of care after a severely traumatic event. 

Lawmakers have heard a lot about this problem this month. Hoffman laid out the challenges medical facilities face in performing these exams — including a shortage of people trained to do the procedure and low reimbursement rates  — during January interim meetings. She told members of the Joint Committee on Health that it would cost about $600,000 to reduce these accessibility gaps. 

Now, a bill to fix the problem is on the table: SB 89 would require all West Virginia hospitals with emergency rooms to staff health care workers trained in how to conduct a sexual assault forensic examination. It does not, however, come with dedicated funding to help the hospitals do this.

“Training those nurse examiners is an extensive period of time, and it’s expensive too,” Hoffman said to the Senate Health and Human Resources committee on Tuesday. “So without a funding component to this bill, it’s going to be a challenge to have the capacity to implement it.”

Lawmakers passed the measure unanimously, sending it to the Senate floor. It still includes no funding. —Allen Siegler

A big tax cut inches along

Gov. Jim Justice during his State of the State address last week. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

The House of Delegates advanced Gov. Jim Justice’s white whale of a personal income tax-cutting bill to third reading on Tuesday, offering no amendments. It was, effectively, a punt.

Typically, a bill has to be read before the full House three times before the final vote. The second read, which happened today, is typically when delegates offer and debate amendments. Instead they’ll do it on the third and final reading for this bill. This is not an unusual move, but it helps to get a refresher on the rules.

According to House spokesperson Ann Ali, this was done to give delegates more time to work on their amendments. It also keeps the bill moving towards the Senate, where its future is much less certain.

It’s possible the bill will die (or significantly change) in the Senate. Last year, Justice helped tank a Republican senator-supported ballot initiative which would have given the Legislature the power to cut property taxes on business inventory and personal vehicles. Justice ultimately won that fight and voters rejected the amendment. Now, it remains to be seen whether senators will embrace aspects of Justice’s plan, or wholly reject it in favor of a workaround version of one of their proposals, offering property tax rebates instead of cutting them outright. —Ian Karbal

Why infant mortality matters

Last week, lawmakers in the House Health and Human Resources Committee moved a family planning bill that would provide adoption tax credits of $5,000 and create ways for the state to fund organizations that encourage “pregnant women to give birth to their unborn children.” Unlike a previous bill that was considered during last year’s abortion debate, the tax credits are smaller and it no longer makes birth control easier to access.

Proponents of the bill say it’s designed to help parents. And to understand how well a state is helping people raise a family, let’s talk about the infant mortality rate.

If someone wanted to use only one basic statistic to try and estimate the overall health of a community, the infant mortality rate would be a good choice. A birth outcome is not only shaped by experiences during a parent’s pregnancy but also those throughout their entire life. It captures factors beyond the health care setting, from housing situations to experiences of different racial and ethnic groups. Additionally, because U.S. birth records are well-kept, infant mortality data is more accurate than some other health data.

Since 1960 and likely before then, the country’s infant mortality has decreased every year. Although West Virginia’s rate has been less straightforward, it decreased from 2016 to 2019. But from 2019 to 2020, while the U.S. numbers continued to fall, West Virginia’s rate rose by about 20%, the fourth highest in the country. Among the 10 states with the highest infant mortality rates, West Virginia had by far the greatest percentage change.Lawmakers could take action to combat an alarming rise in infant deaths by expanding Medicaid to cover doulas, investing further in early childhood home visitation programs and supporting fellowships that train West Virginia doctors in maternity care to address the state’s shortage of women’s health physicians. —Allen Siegler

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.