NewsMontana Legislature


MT lawmakers consider safe harbor for pregnant women seeking addiction treatment

Posted at 9:54 AM, Mar 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-20 14:33:26-04
Diane Sands
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, is carrying Senate Bill 289, and says pregnant women are less likely to to seek treatment for addiction if there is a “threat of being charged with drug possession.” She says she hopes her bill will incentivize women to get care. (photo credit: Shaylee Ragar / UM Legislative News Service)

HELENA – The state Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2017 that approximately 100 babies every year experience drug withdrawal in Montana.

Now, in an effort to lower that number, lawmakers are considering a bill to help pregnant women with addictions.

Sen. Diane Sands (D-Missoula) is carrying Senate Bill 289, which would provide a safe harbor from prosecution for pregnant women who seek addiction treatment.

“If by coming in for healthcare you are admitting to a felony, that’s a real disincentive for people to get healthcare,” Sands said.

The bill passed the Senate 50-0 and has moved to the House. It builds on another bill, which was tabled earlier this session, from Rep. Kimberly Dudik (D-Missoula).

Dudik’s House Bill 309 would have created the same safe harbor as SB 289, but also would have created a grant program through DPHHS to help local health providers create drug treatment programs for pregnant women. That bill likely won’t move forward.

Sen. Sands says the Montana Healthcare Foundation already has a similar grant program to assist hospitals in implementing best practices for addicted moms and babies in neonatal units.  

Benefis Health System in Great Falls received one of these $150,000 grants from the foundation. A representative for Benefis, Jessie Luther, supported the bill at its hearing in the House Human Services Committee Monday.

“Mother and baby do statistically better if they’re able to receive safe harbor and start receiving treatment early,” Luther said.

According to the healthcare foundation’s website, Benefis is using the grant to implement screening, brief intervention, and referral to care into its routine treatment of pregnant women. It will also partner with communities and tribes to encourage other health providers to implement similar models.

The Montana Medical Association, the Montana Primary Care Association, the Association of Montana Public Health Officials and Billings Clinic support the measure. No one spoke in opposition.

In December of 2017, the Missoulian partnered with the University of Montana School of Journalism to publish a series of stories focused on addiction and pregnancy, and how the state had fallen short to provide care for those seeking treatment. 

-Shaylee Ragar reporting for the UM  Legislative News Service

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.