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State lawmakers push insurers, doctors to act on Lyme disease

Written by Jim Hook/The Chambersburg Public Opinion | May 22, 2017 6:57 PM
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Randy Negley, who battled Lyme disease and fought off the affects through treatment, is a member of a group that is getting information out about the disease. This 2016 photo shows a sheet of Lyme disease facts. (Photo: Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

(Harrisburg) -- Republican lawmakers have threatened to slap a regulation or two on health insurers to make sure long-term treatment of Lyme disease is covered.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but conservative legislators in southcentral Pennsylvania say the disease needs the attention of insurers, doctors and people who live in cities. The medical community has debated how to treat Lyme disease, which can be debilitating over the long haul.

"We are having serious problems with this disease, and we need the medical community and insurers to come to the table and start to figure this out," said Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford.  "Constituents can't afford some of the treatment options, and doctors and insurance providers are all over the map with what to do with this disease. Sometimes it takes a bill being moved out of committee to get action, and that's why I voted the way that I did."

The House Health Committee, including Topper, unanimously approved a bill requiring health care policies to cover prescribed treatment of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses. The committee voted unanimously to send the bill (House Bill 174) to the House floor. The committee voted on May 9 as supporters held a rally at the Capitol.

"I generally favor the least regulation of private business and private contracts possible," said Rep. Paul Shemel, R-Greencastle, a health committee member voting in favor of the bill. "However, as we already heavily regulate the health insurance industry, this proposal seemed to me to be minimally intrusive on those otherwise private transactions.  Indeed, many insurance companies already cover this form of treatment."

Pennsylvania has led the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease in each of the five most recent years for which the Centers for Disease Control has complete data. Pennsylvania reported 59,478 confirmed cases from 2002 to 2014, and added 10,817 cases in 2015.

"Lyme disease is being diagnosed in epidemic proportions in our region," said Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Chambersburg, a co-sponsor of the bill. "I hear from families impacted with Lyme on a daily basis. What I hear from Franklin countians is that the medical community is not unified on testing and treatment of Lyme. Insurers often provide only a short-term treatment protocol for Lyme, which covers up to 30 days, leaving many with Lyme out in the cold. Even the standard test given for Lyme is less than 50 percent accurate."

Kauffman, a seventh-term legislator and chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee, traditionally has positioned himself as pro-business and against further regulation.

"Insurers seem to be taking the easy way out, leaving many families battling Lyme in financial ruins," Kauffman said. "While the insurance industry may not like this legislation, the industry needs to understand that the legislature is ready to address their attempts to ignore Pennsylvanians with Lyme."

Shippensburg University's Jackie Rosenberry is determining the effects of burning in Pennsylvania's State Game Lands on the populations of deer, deer mice and deer ticks. Jim Hook

Schemel said that Lyme is virtually non-existent in Pennsylvania cities, but is a serious problem in the district he represents.

"It is incumbent upon me to focus attention on those issues which are important to the area which I represent," Schemel said. "I have known several people locally who have suffered from Lyme disease and benefited from the long-term antibiotic treatment proscribed by the legislation."

Topper does not think the bill will survive the legislative process as presented. It needs input from doctors and insurers.

"The movement of this legislation was designed to show all parties how serious of a problem this is for our districts, and I believe we have accomplished that," Topper said.

A similar bill (Senate Bill 100) has been in the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee since January.

Committee Vice Chairman John Eichelberger Jr., R-Hollidaysburg, said he met with a Lyme advocacy group last week.

"I told them that I would look at the legislation, but, initially, this looks like another mandate on the insurance carriers, and I don't generally support those mandates," Eichelberger said. "Every time we force an insurance company to cover an additional health issue, they raise their rates and force more families and businesses to go without insurance coverage altogether because the cost became too expensive.  We have to look at the welfare of the entire population when making policy decisions like this."

Students rally against Lyme disease

Students from the Chambersburg Area Career Magnet School plan to rally at the state Capitol on May 24 with stories they have gathered from victims and families of those who suffer from Lyme disease. You can submit your experience with Lyme disease to the student committee at https://www.facebook.com/lymediseaseawarenesspa.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and Public Opinion Online.

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