Aid for low-income pregnant women moves; oversight deal reached

Feb. 14, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator George Dungan speaks Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. George Dungan speaks Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

Low-income pregnant women would get more help to prevent low-birthweight babies, under a bill advancing in the Legislature. And legislative oversight of prisons and child welfare is being partially restored.

Sen. George Dungan introduced the “pre-natal plus” bill to provide more services to pregnant women on Medicaid. Dungan said a similar program in Colorado had helped ensure babies are born at healthier weights, which can avoid problems later on. He talked about services that would be covered.

“We're talking about providing services like mental health care, substance use disorder treatment, ensuring they have nutrition counseling, and specifically-targeted case management to make sure that moms have someone who can tell them what other services are available,” Dungan said.

The proposal would cost an estimated $1.6 million a year. Dungan said the money would come from profits that managed care organizations make in excess of what the state allows under its contracts.

Sen. Rob Clements, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said those profits would otherwise go to the state’s general fund. Clements supported Dungan’s bill, but offered an amendment that would “sunset” it, or end the program after four years, unless the Legislature reauthorizes it.

“This is a new program. This is growing government somewhat. And when we have the new programs, I see them come in and not always be successful. And so in order to make sure it's being successful… this amendment says this program shall terminate on June 30, 2028,” Clements said.

Sen. Jana Hughes opposed Clements’ proposed sunset. Hughes said about 2,600 babies are born prematurely in Nebraska every year, and it costs $169 million to care for them. She said half of those babies are born to women eligible for Medicaid, so Dungan’s bill would save money in the long run.

“We can spend a smaller amount of money now and prevent adverse outcomes that can have a lifetime of consequences to kids as they grow. Considering this not only is LB857 a pro-life bill, it is a responsible budget bill. I urge you to oppose sunsetting this too soon. Why would we only want to help mothers and babies at risk for a couple years and then take it away?” Hughes asked.

Despite the opposition, senators voted 25-15 to approve Clement’s amendment sunsetting the program. They then gave first-round approval to the bill on a vote of 45-0.

Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature’s Executive Board heard testimony on a proposal by Speaker John Arch to revise the powers of Office of Public Counsel, or ombudsman’s office, which includes inspectors general for corrections and child welfare. The Ombudsman’s office was created in 1971, and the inspectors general were added to it in the last decade after scandals in the prison and child welfare systems. Gov. Jim Pillen’s administration stopped providing information and access to these oversight offices following an opinion by Attorney General Mike Hilgers last August that they violated the separation of powers.

Arch said the executive and legislative branches have now reached a written agreement, or memorandum of understanding, to restore some oversight. The agreement lasts until the end of next year’s legislative session.

Dave Lopez, Pillen’s chief of staff, confirmed the temporary agreement while lawmakers craft a more permanent solution.“To facilitate that work, we needed to strike a deal that would get through a constitutional limbo, and that would provide legislative access to records, personnel, and facilities at a level less than the problematic terms in current law but more than the total shut out that some feared,” Lopez said.

Public Counsel Julie Rogers supported Arch’s proposals for interim legislation and a study. She talked about the unprecedented nature of the cutoff of information.

“The ombudsman’s office…opened on June 1, 1971, and in it’s history has never been denied information access from the state’s two biggest agencies before August of 2023,” Rogers said.

Inspector General for Child Welfare Jennifer Carter discussed problems the cutoff of information has caused.

“At this point, we don't know whether, or how many, children may have died in the state’s care and custody. We don't know if that was the result of abuse or neglect. We don't know how many children have been seriously injured or what those causes might be. And we're not able to look at it and say, was this a mishandling, or actually are there just some flaws in our system…We are grateful for the memorandum of understanding which will allow us to once again receive these critical notifications,” Carter said.

Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said he might still not get the access to prison computer records he used to have, but the memorandum of understanding appears headed in the right direction.

“This has all happened very fast in the last few days. I don't know the full impact of the MOU, but I think that it will get us to where we need to be to actually do our work, and do it well,” Koebernick said.

But state Court Administrator Corey Steel objected to Arch’s proposal to include juvenile probation records in what Koebernick’s office could see.

“The independence of the judiciary is the fundamental element of our government. Judges must be free to adjudicate youth under their jurisdiction without the threat of investigation by another branch of government. The oversight of the Legislature was sought as a result of the Child Welfare crisis in 2011 was directed to those children whose legal custody is placed with the state of Nebraska. Youth under supervision of juvenile probation are not in the state's legal custody,” Steel said.

However, several law enforcement officials said the proposal doesn’t go far enough. Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson said the number of juvenile offenders with repeat felonies has risen 1,000 percent since 2017, and the entire juvenile justice system needs more oversight.

“We're talking juvenile offenders that are committing more felonies in secession (sic), over and over with no place to put them, not enough adequate infrastructure to give them the care that they need, without appropriate behavioral health infrastructure services to help them deflect their trajectory. We need sunshine over the entire process,” Hanson said.

While the memorandum of understanding is now in effect, the Executive Board has not yet acted on Arch’s proposal for legislation and an overall study.