LR-131 passage could cause ‘exodus’ of healthcare workers in Montana

By: - October 27, 2022 6:29 pm

Dr. Brad Holbrook, an obstetrician and maternal-fetal medicine physician, speaks at an event advocating against ballot measure LR-131 in the Capitol rotunda in Helena on Thursday. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Montana could lose healthcare professionals to other states if a ballot measure passes to require them to provide medical care for infants born at any stage of development — or potentially face criminal charges — medical leaders said Thursday.

Legislative Referendum-131, also called the “Born-Alive Infant Protection Act,” would impose criminal penalties, up to 20 years in prison, or a $50,000 fine on health care providers who do not act to preserve the life of “born-alive infants,” as defined in the ballot language, “including infants born during an attempted abortion.”

Chief Executive Officer of Montana Medical Association Jean Branscum said her organization gets calls from healthcare workers that would be interested in coming to work in Montana, but because of legislation with criminal elements, such as LR-131, say they will look to other states for jobs.

“It’s also calls from individuals in Montana that are saying if you can’t help in this avenue or if we can’t convince them of the detriment to the patients, they’re going to seek employment in another state as well,” she said during an association press conference Thursday. “So the workforce issue goes both ways. It’s not helping retain, nor is it helping recruit providers in the state.”

Opponents, including health organizations around the state like the Montana Medical Association, say LR-131 would prevent medical professionals from respecting the wishes of family members who want to say goodbye to their baby if no medical intervention would keep them alive. If passed, the referendum would require caregivers to take the infant away to perform treatments that won’t stop the child from dying.

But proponents of LR-131 argue there is an absence of legal protections for “infants who have survived abortions,” and that they “have been left to die.” Infanticide is already illegal in Montana, as outlined in the Montana Code Annotated.

After the anti-LR-131 event, President and CEO of the Montana Hospital Association Rich Rasmussen said one of its concerns is the criminalization of caregivers for “utilizing long standing standards of care.”

“We may have an exodus of neonatologists,” Rasmussen told the Daily Montanan. “There’s only 3,800 neonatologists in the entire country, highly sought after, and to lose any of them in the state places at risk that service for every pregnant mom.”

Rasmussen said that every parent expects neonatal care to be available at a hospital and spoke to his own experience as the father of premature twins.

“If we radically change the environment in which we practice medicine in this state, there will be organizations that will come knocking on the doors of every physician that practices in pediatrics, obstetrics and neonatology to say, ‘Come to Colorado, come to Seattle, come to Atlanta,’” he said.

Dr. Brad Holbrook, an obstetrician and maternal-fetal medicine physician, said he would likely refer patients out of state for care if LR-131 passes, but recognized it would change their comfort level.

Montana is already experiencing a healthcare workforce shortage due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue seen nationwide.

Kelly Hunt of the Montana Nurses Association spoke to the impact LR-131 could have on an already strained workforce.

“The past two-and-a-half years of global pandemic has stressed nurses morally, physically and spiritually in ways we have never seen before. LR-131 creates a whole new threat to the well-being of our nurses and the families that we serve,” she said at the press conference.

When asked whether the organization would consider going to court if the ballot measure passes, Branscum said they would be “exploring all avenues and options.”

Dale Stickaer was headed to the Secretary of State’s Office at the Capitol when he passed the press event and decided to listen. He said he’s a supporter of LR-131.

“It’s a life, at least try,” Stickear said. “My thing is, how many of them believe in abortion? If they do believe in abortion, how can they talk about compassion? They can’t.”

He said he empathized listening to the speakers talking about patients who want to hold their child before they pass; he would have liked to hold his, having lost a premature infant over a decade ago.

Past President of the MMA Dr. William Gallea said that MMA, Montana Hospital Association and Montana Nurses Association do not hold a stance on abortion.

“Quality care includes compassionate palliative care at the end of life, regardless of age,” said Dr. Gallea. “These are tragedies, not crimes.”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.