The House Health and Human Resources Committee meets earlier this week. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Lawmakers are moving a pair of proposals that would put more teachers assistants in classrooms and a bill that would expand dental coverage for people on Medicaid. But first, a bill that would make it illegal for doctors to perform surgery to treat gender dysphoria in transgender youth.

Limiting health care options for trans youth

In West Virginia, transgender kids face a lot of real problems. They’re often bullied and stigmatized. They’re at high risk for depression and suicide. And they often avoid even seeking necessary medical care for fear of being mistreated.

“There was somebody in our study who had a sprained ankle and didn’t go to the emergency room at all,” said WVU professor Megan Gandy, who published a recent study on the subject. “They said they would rather just limp around and deal with it themselves than go into the emergency room, because they knew they would have to deal with lots of misgendering and things like that.”

But West Virginia lawmakers are moving to further limit the options for this already-marginalized population. On Thursday, the House Health and Human Resources Committee advanced a bill that would ban doctors from performing surgery to change a trans youth’s body to match their gender identity. Only a small number of trans kids opt for this type of surgery. 

During the hearing, Dels. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, and Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, spoke about the lack of physician consultation on this bill and condemned their Republican colleagues for their support of it.

“This doesn’t help anybody,” Pushkin said to the committee. “This is just an insult to people who are already marginalized.”

The bill passed by voice vote; none of the committee members who voted in favor of the measure spoke publicly during the meeting to explain their reasoning. But in other states, proponents of similar bills have said they are meant to keep kids from making non-reversible decisions that they may not be mature enough to make.

The bill next goes to the House Judiciary Committee. —Allen Siegler

Teaching assistants on the fast track

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools David Roach speaks to lawmakers on Thursday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Dual proposals to put more teaching assistants in kindergarten through third grade classrooms are moving through both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature.

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee advanced its version of the bill, introduced by its committee chair, Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason. The bill is substantially similar to one introduced by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, which passed out of the House Education Committee yesterday. Hanshaw has said that the bill is one of his highest priorities during the session.

The similar Senate bill was passed unanimously, and with praise from state Superintendent of Schools David Roach. It comes as West Virginia schools are facing a major staff shortage, and student achievement remains among the lowest in the country.

“I applaud the committee and I applaud the chair for what they are doing to help our children,” Roach said. 

The goal of both bills is to allow teachers more hands-on time with students by decreasing the staff to student ratio in classrooms. Grady, a fourth grade teacher, said that the addition of a teacher’s assistant in overcrowded classrooms could allow, for example, something like a two-track system. Assistants could work with kids who are falling behind grade-level, while the teacher could continue teaching the rest of the class at a faster pace.

Both bills also ask schools to focus early-grade curriculums on ensuring students attain age appropriate literacy levels and submit progress reports to the Legislature.

Grady’s bill would also allow teacher’s aides to undergo some of the same literacy education training programs as the teachers they serve, and would require them to have hands-on time with students as opposed to doing admin duties.

“This bill is gonna put money in our classrooms, right on the front line,” said Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, who offered “enthusiastic” support for the bill. “I’m hoping we’re able to do this in our budget,” he added. —Ian Karbal

Bill to expand Medicaid dental coverage moves in Senate

Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, lead sponsor of a bill to expand Medicaid dental coverage. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

West Virginians on Medicaid would be able to access twice the amount of dental coverage they currently have, under the provisions of a bill advancing in the Senate. 

As we highlighted last year, the current cap of $1,000 is insufficient for most dental procedures. The result is that Medicaid enrollees are forced to choose between incurring expensive bills or ignoring important health problems.

SB 269 passed the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee unanimously on Thursday with no discussion. The bill would cover up to $2,000 annually for most dental work.

Committee Vice Chair Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, noted there wasn’t yet an estimate about how much the move would cost the state; an unsuccessful bill last year proposed raising the limit to $1,500, and was estimated to cost an additional $24 million. But as is the case with Medicaid, the federal government pays for about 80% of the cost. 

The bill still has to clear the Senate Finance Committee before going before the full Senate.  —Erica Peterson

Go deeper: For West Virginians on Medicaid, lawmaker inaction means dental and vision benefits fall far short

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

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