Pennsylvania State Legislature makes progress on critical issues

In light of the recent special elections for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Democrats are officially in control of the House for the first time since 2010. However, this majority is slim, a mere 102-101, meaning any resignations, deaths, or other changes could quickly flip this. This election update makes Pennsylvania one of two states with the two chambers of the state legislature controlled by different parties (the other state being Virginia).

With that flip, a whole host of new legislature is being proposed, representing both Democratic priorities and bipartisan initiatives. Before we leave for the semester, let’s take a look at some of the legislation coming down the Pennsylvania pipeline:

Insurance coverage of breast cancer screening

The Pennsylvania General Assembly has passed a bipartisan bill mandating insurance coverage for vital screenings and genetic testing for patients at high risk for developing breast cancer. The bill is anticipated to be the first that Governor Josh Shapiro signs into law.

Specifically, the bill requires insurance to cover “all costs associated with breast cancer MRIs, ultrasounds, and BRCA-related genetic testing.” This is an expansion of previous 2020 legislation that required insurance to “cover the costs of breast cancer MRIs and supplemental breast imaging for high-risk patients” — the new bill covers all costs including copays, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs. This is the first bill with such requirements in the U.S.

14,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and these preventative measures can not only help diagnose the issue, but prevent the disease from having long term impacts.

For more insight on women’s health issues, be sure to check out Anna Cappella’s Women and STEM column in SciTech.

Informed consent for medical exams

In another of a total of eight bipartisan bills passed by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a bill requiring informed consent for pelvic, rectal, or prostate exams was passed unanimously.

This bill was proposed by State Representatives Elizabeth Fiedler and Liz Hanbidge after a constituent raised the issue to Fiedler after having a pelvic exam performed on her for “training purposes” without consent while she was unconscious. Current Pennsylvania laws allow this to be a “learning opportunity” for students at medical schools and teaching hospitals, but advocate groups note that this practice is harmful due to the lack of consent given by patients.

Specifically, this bill requires “explicit verbal and written consent” from a patient to receive these exams while under anesthesia or unconscious, but gives exceptions for “emergencies and exams deemed ‘within the scope of care.’” Violating healthcare providers would be fined for such actions.

Fiedler describes this policy as a balance between medical training and patient care while also maintaining trust between patient and doctors. Indeed, advocacy groups note that informed consent “protects patient rights, empowers students, and mitigates racist and sexist medical practices.”

Such procedures are currently banned in 21 states, and as this legislation moves through the Pennsylvania Senate and to Shapiro’s office, Pennsylvania has the chance to make that 22.

Diwali as a state holiday

The Pennsylvania legislature just passed a bill making Diwali a state holiday in Pennsylvania, with the bill clearing the Senate unanimously and the House in a vote 200 to one. The bill recognizes the holiday but “does not require any governments, businesses, or schools to close for the day.”

The holiday is an important tradition for those who practice Hinduism, and celebrates the triumph of good over evil, calling back to the Ramayana, an Indian epic where the god Vishnu is reincarnated as the prince Rama and defeats an evil demon. Celebrations include fireworks and leaving on lights in their homes, reminiscent of the pathway of lanterns that Rama follows home to his kingdom in the Ramayana.

The House version of the bill was sponsored by Representative Arvind Venkat, while the Senate version was sponsored by Senator Greg Rothman. Both sponsors emphasized the need for representation, with “the goal to recognize and celebrate the growing Indian community in the Commonwealth.”

Next steps include the House and Senate bills being passed in their opposite houses (a simple process because the bills are identical), and for the bill to be signed by the Pennsylvania governor.

LGBTQ non-discrimination

In the next step in 22 years of repeated proposals, a bill banning discrimination against LGBTQ individuals has received a committee vote.

Specifically, this bill looks to ban “sexual orientation discrimination in housing, employment, and all other public accommodations.” This builds on 2022 administrative changes allowing LGBTQ individuals to file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission if they feel they have been fired or denied a service on the basis of their sexual orientation, as well as a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling defining “sex” in federal law as sexual orientation and gender identity.

Republicans unanimously voted against the bill in committee, claiming the rule is unnecessary given the federal protections from the 2020 Supreme Court ruling and that it would suffer misuse when it came to gender-affirming care. Democrats argue that state-wide protections are necessary in case the federal ruling is ever reversed.

This legislation still faces a House vote, where Democrats have a slim majority, and a Senate vote, where Republicans have control. However, Governor Shapiro campaigned strongly on this issue, making it one to look out for as the Pennsylvania legislature moves forward on this process.

Gun control legislation

Previous Republican control of the House meant that any potential gun control legislation was blocked in committee. However, the new Democrat-led House has just advanced four gun-control bills through committee that should hit the House floor as early as next week.

The first bill requires that long-barrel firearms are sold with trigger locks in an attempt to promote safe-storage rules. The second “requires gun owners to report a lost or stolen firearm to the police within three days,” with legal punishments for repeat offenders. The third expands mandatory background checks for firearms purchasing in Pennsylvania, helping close the “gun show” loophole that provides an exception for private sales of shotguns, sporting rifles, and semi-automatic rifles. The fourth enables a judge to “order authorities to temporarily seize firearms from someone if asked by family members or police,” implementing a “red flag” policy that is already followed by 19 other states.

Despite such progress, the bills are likely to face backlash in later steps of the process. While in committee, the bills were passed along party lines, and Republicans are already speaking out with concerns about the enforceability of such legislation and whether judges can be trusted to make such judgments required in the “red flag” law. They claim that this legislation is symbolic and doesn’t address the root cause of the issue.

In contrast, Democrats claim these bills are “relatively moderate gun-control measures aimed at reducing gun violence, trafficking, suicides, and accidents,” necessary legislation in the face of record pace mass killings in 2023, and an issue in cities like Philadelphia.