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Eric L. Johnson, Published May 18 2013

Letter: Careless, reckless legislative assembly

Now that the North Dakota Legislature has closed a record-setting 80-day assembly, I’d like to review the apparent lack of concern shown by the super-majority Republicans for a number of public health issues. At best, these ill-conceived efforts can be characterized as “careless.” Special interests exerted influence on legislators with some success.

Four abortion-restricting bills were passed – all signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, whose only explanation was that it is “a legitimate attempt by a state Legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.” Proponents of the legislation, including Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, and Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, ignored public testimony of North Dakota physicians regarding the reckless nature of these laws to potentially restrict legal mainstream medical procedures, including in vitro fertilization.

We are a state desperately in need of retaining and recruiting health providers for our growing population. The Legislature did the right thing in funding a new health sciences school. Privately, a number of my colleagues, including future physicians, wondered what kind of practice environment these out-of-touch laws would create in North Dakota.

Furthermore, Republicans who cast themselves as fiscal conservatives didn’t seem bothered at all by the millions of dollars that will be spent as these laws wind their way through the courts; ultimately to lose, because abortion is legal. Not to worry, as Sitte noted, that outside interests are involved.

Abortion restrictions weren’t the only area in health-related legislation where special interests were in play, as tobacco proponents nearly derailed a popular smoke-free law and funding for tobacco prevention and control. Both of these issues were settled on by the voters in 2012, when two-thirds of voters voted for smoke-free legislation to reduce the harm of secondhand smoke; and in 2008, when the people passed Measure 3 to keep tobacco settlement dollars at work in tobacco disease prevention.

Recent polling showed even more popular support for these public health laws, but that didn’t keep Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo, from promoting House Concurrent Resolution 3033. This resolution, put together at the behest of tobacco special interests from outside of North Dakota, was to consider the ridiculous proposition of “harm reduction.” Basically, this is promotion of other tobacco products such as chewing tobacco to get people off of cigarettes, ignoring the fact that many medically safe tobacco cessation products are already FDA approved.

The only people testifying in committee in favor of HCR 3033 were Thoreson and a dentist from Kentucky. It’s apparent that Republican legislators are more interested in serving special interests from outside the state in critical areas of health care than listening to voters and North Dakota health care providers, or just following the law. In the next election cycle, hopefully the voters will again do the right thing at the polls and remove those who don’t care about the will of North Dakotans.

Johnson, MD, is a Grand Forks physician.