New state laws take effect today: Infant heart screenings, early voting and more -
Published Friday, September 6, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:06 am
New state laws take effect today: Infant heart screenings, early voting and more

LINCOLN — Tiffany Mytty-­Klein celebrated with cupcakes and sparkler candles when a law was passed requiring all Nebraska newborns to be screened for life-threatening heart defects.

The Papillion mother doesn't have any special plans for today, when the screening mandate takes effect, along with several other new state laws.

She'll be too busy running her 11-year-old son, Cole, around to his many activities.

That would be the same son who, at 8 weeks old, nearly died of an undetected heart defect. Doctors later said he had been born with the malformation in his heart.

Because of Cole's experience, Mytty-Klein has poured herself into efforts to pass a screening bill in Nebraska.

She said Thursday that it's difficult to put into words how it feels to have succeeded and to know that future babies will be checked for dangerous heart defects.

“It means that other parents may not have to find out the way my husband and I did,” Mytty-Klein said.

“I've met too many moms who found out their children had heart defects after they died,” she said.

Nebraska's new law means that dangerous heart defects can be found before babies die or suffer serious health problems from a lack of oxygen.

Once found, such defects can be treated with medicine and surgery.

Dr. Brady Kerr, a neonatologist with Methodist Women's Hospital in Omaha, said many congenital heart defects are discovered during routine prenatal ultrasound tests.

But ultrasounds don't pick up all defects, and a baby may show no sign of problems in the first days or weeks of life, Kerr said.

With the new law, introduced by State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, Nebraska joins a growing number of states mandating heart disease screening.

National groups began pushing for screenings as studies increasingly showed that life-threatening heart problems could be found with a simple, quick test.

Critical congenital heart disease affects about 8 of every 1,000 newborns and accounts for 30 percent of all infant deaths in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Screening involves the use of a pulse oximeter, a device commonly used in hospitals to measure oxygen levels in the blood.

In adults, the measurement is usually done with a clip attached to a finger.

In newborns, it is done by attaching monitors to a baby's hand and foot using small sticky strips or Velcro bands. The test is painless and can be completed within a few minutes.

Kerr said research also showed that, when done properly, the tests have a low rate of false positives. That means they rarely mistakenly identify healthy babies as having heart disease.

Most hospitals in the Omaha metro area started doing screenings last year, before the law went into effect.

Lisa Strasheim, who oversees women's and children's services for Alegent Creighton Health, said the Alegent Creighton hospitals began screening because it was recommended by the national pediatrics group.

She said parents seem appreciative of the tests.

“It's a pretty quick process, and most of the babies are absolutely fine,” Strasheim said. “For the one baby you find, it's absolutely worth it.”

No one tracks the number of babies identified with critical congenital heart disease by the screening.

As of this spring, hospitals accounting for about three of every four newborns in the state were doing screenings, according to a survey by state health officials.

The new law means heart disease screening will be extended to all newborns. For babies born outside of a hospital or birthing facility, the responsibility for getting the screening would fall on the parents or other people who register the birth.

Nebraska already requires all newborns to be checked for hearing problems and certain metabolic diseases.

Among other laws taking effect today:

Life sentences

Juveniles convicted of first-degree murder will no longer get automatic life sentences.

Legislative Bill 44 gives judges leeway to sentence juvenile killers to between 40 years and life in prison. Mandatory life sentences for murders committed by people younger than 18 years old were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The new law affects future cases. Courts most likely will decide the fates of the 27 people serving life sentences for murders they committed as juveniles.

Partner treatment

Nebraska health care providers now have legal authority to prescribe antibiotics for the sexual partners of patients infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea. Under LB 528, such prescriptions can be issued without the partner seeing a doctor.

Veterans benefits

Children and other dependents of some military veterans can get a break on fees, as well as tuition, at state universities, colleges and community colleges under LB 180.

Fee and tuition waivers are available for dependents of veterans who die or are disabled by service-connected injuries.

A related measure, LB 224, gives veterans with service-related disabilities a preference in bidding on state contracts.

Early voting

Voters will have fewer days to cast early ballots under LB 271. Instead of starting 35 days before an election, early voting now will start 30 days prior.

The change gives election officials time to program machines for use by blind voters.

Public records

New limits take effect on the amount that state and local governments can charge for providing public records.

LB 363 bars charges for the staff time needed to process requests unless staff spend more than four hours on the task.

Contact the writer: Martha Stoddard    |   402-473-9583    |  

Martha covers the Nebraska Legislature, the governor, state agencies, and health, education and budget issues out of our Lincoln bureau.

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