Q&A: Freshman Rep. Rosemary Lesser talks this year’s legislative session
Representative Rosemary Lesser, a veteran and an obstetrician-gynecologist, is a newcomer to the Utah Legislature this year. She was appointed to her seat less than a month ago by the state’s Democratic delegates after a short-notice series of events prompted her to offer her name for consideration to replace the late Rep. LaWanna Shurtliff, following her death in December.
Lesser is eager to bring her professional medical expertise to the Legislature. As a member of the House Health and Human Services Committee, she will have ample opportunity to weigh in on legislation pertaining to health care. She represents House District 10, which includes Weber County. She will also be speaking about Utah Democrats’ health policy priorities at the upcoming 2021 Utah State of Reform Health Policy Conference. In this Q&A, she speaks with State of Reform about legislation she is sponsoring, COVID-19 and more.
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Eli Kirshbaum: What made you put your name up for this seat? Why are you specifically interested in health policy?
Rep. Rosemary Lesser: “Rep. Shurtliff died on the 30th of December, and the night that she died, the person who had run her campaign called me and said, ‘Would you consider running for this position?’ I was very honored because he shared with me that Rep. Shurtliff had confided in him the names of a few people in the district that she felt would be suitable people to follow in her legacy.
I’ve always been aware of how policy affects the individual, especially with the women that I have cared for since I graduated from medical school in 1981. From that time on, I could always see how policy affected patient care and patient outcome. So I had always been paying attention to that, and it really wasn’t until this came about, and that I was invited to run for the office, that this came to full fruition.”
EK: Is there anything in particular you’ve encountered in your practice as a medical professional that you hope to address as a legislator?
RL: “My membership on Health and Human Services has been something that has been a much more natural fit for me than I ever expected because [there are] so many times when I have the opportunity to explain, for the rest of the members of that committee, the medical implications of what is being proposed. Sometimes, it truly is just a matter of education.
For example, Rep. Dailey-Provost had a bill about ten days ago for contraception for inmates. This was, really in many ways, a bill that closed a loophole because the regulation is that inmates are required to receive medical care. I still believe that it was really not ill-willed oversight, but absolutely an oversight to not include contraception as medical care. So it was enlightening to some of the individuals on the committee when I explained to them how, even though their traditional view of contraception is related to family planning, they really didn’t understand that often this medication is often used to treat honest-to-goodness medical conditions that women may suffer from, and that really hadn’t crossed their mind.
So I have an education element to what I’ve been doing on Health and Human Services at this point, but then, on the bill-writing side, I’ve been involved with two health-related pieces of legislation.”
EK: How has your experience in the Health and Human Services Committee been so far? Are there any bills you’ve seen that you are concerned about or supportive of?
RL: “There are a few bills that are coming up that will absolutely be controversial, and I’ve really spent a lot of time pondering what the best way is to approach those bills. One that I’m looking at is the treatment of transgender individuals [HB 92, sponsored by Rep. Shipp, which would prohibit physicians from performing gender-altering procedures on minors]. I have to say, I really do believe my approach in this bill needs to honor the relationship between a doctor and their patient … What I think is the most important role that I can play in this is helping people understand the doctor-patient relationship, and challenge them to decide, ‘When is it the role of the state to become an uninvited fourth party in this particular discussion?’
So, for instance, for a transgender child under 18, the people involved would be the health care team, the patient themselves and their parent. So, in this case, the parents’ rights are also being overruled by the state, and without, in my opinion, a compelling reason for those rights to be overlooked. So, does the state have a right to say that the doctor, the parent and the child’s conclusion on the treatment of a medical condition needs to have the input of a governmental agency?”
EK: What legislation are you sponsoring this session?
RL: “Because I had priority designation, several of the experienced representatives were willing to share legislation that they had, initially at least, drafted the preamble of the bill, and then I’d run with that.
The first one is actually just a very simple fix to a solution that’s already in place. It’s called ‘Pharmacy Software Amendments [HB 265],’ and what this is designed to do is, starting in 2022, all controlled substances will need to be electronically prescribed and digitally go into pharmacies. What it involves is codifying in legislation the ability for a patient to have electronically transferred a prescription to one pharmacy, and if that pharmacy does not have the medication that was prescribed, for them to be able to digitally move it to a pharmacy of their choice.
This particular bill was prompted by a constituent who couldn’t get the medicines transferred down to his home in southern Utah where he had gone to die. His dad couldn’t get the prescription transferred and had to drive all the way up to Primary Children’s. This is a very simple fix in the pharmacy regulations, and it goes along with the fact that digital prescriptions are going to be the way of the future.
The second bill, which should be coming out any day now, involves issuing state identification cards, specifically for homeless individuals, because the problem is that individuals who don’t have an ID have a really hard time entering into the workforce and doing the many things that require IDs. In this bill, basically it’s going to allow homeless shelters and other homeless support services to be able to issue address verifications so that a person can get an ID and use that ID to go and do things that IDs are required for.
The third one is definitely a lot more complex and may not even make it to the floor this year. It involves contraceptive equity. Basically, there are a number of insurance providers in the state of Utah who were able to grandfather out of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act that required that contraception be provided for all of the beneficiaries. From an economic perspective, it makes a lot of sense. But there are a number of products that are sold in Utah that do not comply with contraceptive equity. Twenty-nine states in the U.S. already have contraceptive equity laws on the books, and this would make Utah the 30th state to do that. I think that I’ll be persuasive in convincing my fellow legislators that this makes economic sense.”
EK: How are you feeling about Utah’s response to COVID-19? Can the Legislature do anything to better address the pandemic?
RL: “I don’t think that there’s actually much legislation, at least on the direct issue of COVID, like, for instance, vaccine rollout. I am optimistic that Utah and the federal government is getting this right. We’re not shipping out a lot more vaccines, people have gotten over the rough organizational rollout. Now, for instance, you can actually draw out six doses instead of five. That part, the Legislature is really not getting involved with … we are many times just a conduit of information [for constituents].
Where I believe the Legislature really has been pretty proactive is recognizing the impact [COVID has had] on so many walks of life here in Utah. For instance, there are items in the education appropriation bill that specifically [address] disrupted learning that has happened this past year. So as a legislator, we have our appropriations. We’re not the final disperser of money, but we can help in that process by highlighting and approving that appropriation.
So in my Education Appropriations Committee, COVID relief has been a major thing to talk about. We passed a pay raise for all of the teachers for the extra work that they’ve done, so that’s one of the legislative solutions. Every single committee is looking at legislation that has some aspect of economic relief to help economies under assault, especially in the service industry.
With us just having had an election, we’re getting more signals about the federal COVID relief bill. It’s still making its way through Congress but I have a feeling it will be pretty generous to the states, and Utah is already kind of strategizing what they’re going to do with those funds.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.