HARRISBURG — The state House has begun moving a long-awaited bill that would create a task force to examine the impact of the state’s opioid epidemic on children and unborn babies.

The proposal has been stalled so long that babies born when lawmakers first started talking about the idea are now in school, said state Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga County, who is the current prime sponsor.

The legislation was first introduced in 2016, championed by former state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, who retired in 2018. Gov. Tom Wolf declared the first statewide opioid emergency in early 2017.

“Children who were babies when the task force was first proposed, those kids are in kindergarten now,” Owlett, said.

Owlett’s House Bill 253 was approved unanimously Tuesday morning by the House Children and Youth Committee. It now awaits consideration in the full House.

Owlett said the task force would be focused on the harm caused to unborn babies when their pregnant mothers use drugs, as well as the lasting impact of drug use in families and how it impacts children.

He pointed to state data showing that since 2018, more than 5,000 babies in Pennsylvania have been born with neonatal abstinence syndrome — the medical term for drug withdrawal due to exposure to drugs used by their mothers.

“If the Wolf administration had been doing a better job, over the last five years of connecting the dots, and maybe they are behind the scenes, but they’re not telling the story” to the public, said Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, based in Reading. “And if they’re not connecting the dots, then it’s time to step up and say, we’ve got to do a better job of connecting dots because we’ve essentially lost five years,” Palm said.

The Wolf administration had previously opposed the idea of creating the task force, arguing that it would duplicate the efforts underway to help respond to the way the opioid epidemic was impacting children, including a Multi-Disciplinary Workgroup on Infants with Substance Exposure (MDWISE) housed at the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said Erin James, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman.

While the Wolf administration is stopping short of supporting the proposal, it no longer opposes the bill, James said.

“Those concerns have been resolved, and DHS believes the new task force could collaborate with MDWISE to improve outcomes for families of infants who have been affected by prenatal substance use,” James said.

Owlett said that a legislative task force created by Gov. Tom Wolf to oversee the state’s rollout of the COVID vaccines has worked well.

The approach would help ensure that children’s interests aren’t being overlooked as the state continues to grapple with the opioid epidemic, he said.

Wolf has renewed his opioid disaster proclamation 13 times since the original declaration in January 2017. State officials have warned that the COVID pandemic and the economic shutdowns that kept people in their homes contributed to a resurgence in the opioid epidemic in 2020.

“We’ve been laser-focused on the opioid epidemic, and we should be,” Owlett said. “But we are still battling the opioid epidemic,” he said, adding that the impact on children hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. “Some of the forgotten are babies in the womb,” he said.

Advocates who’ve been pressing for the state to improve child protection welcomed the idea of creating a task force as long as it would be a means of producing reliable data to inform public policy, Palm said.

Palm said that she doesn’t care if the state creates a task force or calls it something else as long as the effort increases the focus and information available to figure out how to better respond to help kids.

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