Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. Photo: Shutterstock

Following is a listing of executive and legislative action for Feb. 22 and the week of Feb. 25. Both houses of the General Assembly were in recess at press time. The state House of Representatives was in set to return to session March 11; the Pennsylvania Senate was in recess and scheduled to be back March 18.

GI Bill

On Feb. 27 at Fort Indiantown Gap in Annville, Gov. Tom Wolf outlined the benefits of his proposed PA GI Bill that enables members of the Pennsylvania National Guard to earn college benefits for their spouses and children. The PA GI Bill, or Military Family Education Program, would be the first program of its kind in the nation.

The bipartisan measure is set to be introduced in both houses of the General Assembly by Pennsylvania Sens. Mike Regan, R-York, and Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, and state Reps. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, and Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence.

Under the proposal, the education benefit—providing for 10 semesters of tuition-free education for family members—would be available to Pennsylvania National Guard members who have completed their initial military term and commit to an additional six years of service. Backers said that in addition to supporting military family members, this program would also improve Pennsylvania National Guard retention and strengthen its readiness.

“The PA GI Bill is designed to show that we not only appreciate our Pennsylvania National Guard members’ service, but that we also acknowledge their families’ support and sacrifice,” Wolf said. According to a statement from the Wolf administration, the Pennsylvania National Guard is the third-largest Guard contingent in the nation, with nearly 20,000 soldiers and airmen who reside in every county.

“This program will recognize the sacrifice of our Guard families by offering education benefits to Guard spouses and children in Pennsylvania schools,” Wolf said.

Nurse Practitioners

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, re-introduced legislation Feb. 27 that would give full practice authority to advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs.

Senate Bill 25 would modernize the Professional Nursing Law to permit qualified APRNs to practice in their field of specialty independent of a physician after they fulfill a three-year, 3,600-hour collaboration agreement with a physician. Current law requires nurse practitioners to practice under a collaboration agreement at all times.

Bartolotta said APRNs are perfectly suited to help meet the growing demand for health care services, as studies have shown that patients who are treated by APRNs have similar health outcomes to patients who are treated by physicians. Nearly 35 percent of Pennsylvanians live in an area or population group that has inadequate primary care access.

“Many rural areas are facing a crisis in terms of the availability of quality health care services. Many physicians are retiring, and there are not enough new doctors coming into rural communities,” Bartolotta said. “Nurse practitioners can help to fill this void, so we need to allow APRNs to help patients to the fullest extent of their knowledge and training. Giving them full practice authority will provide a huge benefit to patients.”

APRNs are approved for full practice authority in 22 other states and Washington, D.C., Bartolotta said in a statement.

SB 25 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

Rare Diseases

Sens. John Blake, D-Lackawanna, and Judy Ward, R-Blair, along with state Reps. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, and Marcy Toepel, R-Montgomery, have been named to lead the Rare Disease Caucus in the General Assembly.

The caucus advocates for the estimated 1.2 million Pennsylvanians—more than half of them children—affected by rare diseases, which are defined as any disease impacting fewer than 200,000 people. With more than 7,000 rare diseases, there are many diseases that medical researchers are not studying.

According to a statement from Toepel’s office, Pennsylvania has been making great strides to be a leader in the rare disease research. Act 14 of 2017 created the Pennsylvania Rare Disease Advisory Council, which serves as the advisory body on rare diseases to the General Assembly and all other relevant state and private agencies that provide services to, or are charged with the care of, individuals with rare diseases. Its first report was submitted to lawmakers and the executive branch last July.

Water Contamination

A water contamination crisis in southeastern Pennsylvania over the presence of PFAS became a main topic in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Feb. 27 focusing on health issues with Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

During the hearing, Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, pressed Levine over efforts to educate local health care providers about the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, industrial-use chemicals that, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studies, do not break down and accumulate over time in the environment and human bodies. PFAS formerly in use at former military bases in Montgomery County are the suspected source of elevated levels of drinking water there.

“My constituents are concerned about the health effects of this contamination [and] about the lack of information their physicians are armed with,” Collett said.

According to a statement from Collett’s office, Levine said she would work toward strengthening communication with the public and health care professionals.

Collett was elected to the state Senate in the November 2018 election, flipping a seat that had never been held by a Democrat. The water crisis was a major focus of her campaign.

“The people of my district are scared, frustrated and suffering,” she said at the hearing. “They want to be heard. And they want action. I look forward to continuing this conversation with my constituents and Secretary Levine so we can bring them some hope and, more importantly, a path towards solutions.”

Collett, in her statement, said she has already begun the process of introduced two pieces of legislation on the subject of water pollution: one on the classification and cleanup of PFAS and another updating environmental standards for drinking water.

Net Neutrality

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, on Feb. 22 announced she has introduced legislation aimed at protecting Pennsylvanians’ internet use.

House Bill 544 would make it illegal for internet service providers to block lawful internet content, impair internet traffic or engage in any other activities that negatively affect the web experience of Pennsylvania residents, according to a statement from Fiedler’s office.

“Most people get their internet access from a handful of big companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon,” Fiedler said in a statement. “Under current law, the company you pay for your internet service could prevent you from going to a competitor’s website, interfere with speech that criticizes the company, or even block your access to a union website during a labor conflict at work.”

The bill comes in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 vote to abandon net neutrality standards adopted by the Obama administration.

“We rely on the internet for so much of our communication with work, school, government and family, and for financial transactions including purchases and bill paying,” Fiedler said. “We need to protect our equal access to information on the internet.”

The measure has been referred to the state House of Representatives’ Consumer Affairs Committee.