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The constitutionality of Indiana’s near-total abortion ban, passed by the legislature in a 2022 special session, has been challenged by abortion care providers. (Photo/file)

May 10, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS—Though lawmakers are often seen sharing snippy debates and swapping sarcastic eye rolls, they sometimes create bills that almost everyone can happily agree on.

After the 2023 legislative session ended on April 28 in the early morning hours, over 250 bills passed, covering topics like trans health care, handguns for teachers and other culture war issues. However, lawmakers from the House Democratic and House Republican caucuses believe this session also brought something everyone can feel positive about.

Republican perspective

Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Merrillville, had multiple bills pass through with bipartisan support that she said she’s “super proud of.”

The first aims to protect firefighters. Firefighter uniforms have been known to possibly contain PFAS, which are manmade chemicals commonly found in nonstick kitchenware and water and oil repellents. The concern from organizations like the U.S. Center for Disease Control is that PFAS chemicals can increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

House Bill 1341 pushes to increase the transparency around fire gear and the risks that come with purchasing it. Authored by Olthoff, HB 1341 would prohibit fire departments from purchasing any fire gear that does not have a permanent label saying whether the gear contains PFAS.

The bill’s creation came after a volunteer firefighter in St. John shared some articles on PFAS with Olthoff. After researching further, she began drafting.

Olthoff said that in her first version of the bill, the goal was to eliminate PFAS contaminated gear altogether, but after researching and hearing testimony, she found that manufacturers haven’t found a good enough waterproof alternative to PFAS—yet.

Going from a two-page bill to simply a paragraph, Olthoff said she ended up receiving unanimous bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Why? Because she said it’s not a controversial issue, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle care about firefighter safety.

Of all Indiana firefighters, 72.7% are volunteer, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, with an average of 2 deaths occur per 1,000 fires.

“I believe we are pro-firefighters in the state of Indiana. We want to keep them safe. They keep us safe,” Olthoff said.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

Olthoff also spent the 2023 session focusing on the foster care system.

Joining with three other lawmakers, Rep. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, Sen. Kyle Walker, R-Lawrence, and Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, the quartet drafted up four different bills to protect the rights of foster children and foster parents. They met before the session started and took a look at foster care policies, trying to figure out how to get more Hoosiers to become foster parents.

Of the four bills, three survived.

Olthoff’s bill, House Bill 1570, which passed almost unanimously in both chambers, contained over 15 different statutes increasing the rights of foster parents.

The two other bills passed touched on tax credits for foster parents and the separation of siblings in the foster care system.

Olthoff said the bills received bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House because all lawmakers care about Indiana’s children.

“I want our state to really help children because that’s the next generation,” Olthoff said. “And it seems like there’s a lot of improvement that our state could do, as evidenced with our four foster care bills.”

Democratic perspective

For Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, the main “wins” this session were health care-centric bills. As a retired OB-GYN, Fleming’s goal when she first stepped into politics was simple: change the policies around general health care.

“Repeatedly I saw the consequences of an unintended pregnancy,” Fleming said.

“Anything that we could do that could safely increase access to birth control was going to be a goal of mine. And it took a long time, but I think that we finally did get something really substantial accomplished, and I’m very proud of that.”

Her solution to the statistic that 49% of unintended pregnancy in Indiana? Expand access to hormonal birth control by allowing pharmacists to prescribe contraceptives.

Under House Bill 1568, co-authored by Fleming, certain pharmacists who complete a training program will be able to prescribe and dispense birth control to women who are in good health without necessarily having to go through a doctor.

Fleming said this idea came after the restrictions put on abortion in Indiana. Lawmakers agreed in unison that something needed to be done about Indiana’s reproductive health, so the bipartisan support wasn’t a surprise to the bill’s authors, including Republican Rep. Elizabeth Rowray, R-Yorktown.

“I think there was a developing awareness that we need to do something to help women avoid unintended pregnancies,” Fleming added.

Fleming said this will have a positive impact on Hoosier women who are unable to visit a doctor.

“We know that the education that the pharmacists are receiving in order to be able to do this well qualifies them to be able to prescribe and dispense this type of birth control,” Fleming said. “So for women who are 18 or over who have no contraindications, who may perhaps work all day long, the ability to go on a Sunday afternoon and get your birth control, I think is going to help our women.”

The bill passed the House by a vote of 86-12 and the Senate by a vote of 28-20.

Another bipartisan bill supported by Fleming? The change of eligibility requirements of Medicaid, as seen in House Bill 1091, authored by Rep. Ann Vermillion, R-Marion.

“We know that prevention is by far better . . . than treatment. If we can keep babies healthy and extend that throughout childhood, and provide those things like immunizations and screenings and health care of minor problems before they become major problems, we will keep children healthier,” Fleming said.

“We will keep them in school, we’ll keep their parents at work because they’re not home with children who’ve become increasingly sick. So it’s a win-win for everybody.”

HB 1091’s final version passed the House by a vote of 89-1 and the Senate by 49-0.

For a full list of the 252 bills signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb, go here.

Ashlyn Myers is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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