Rep. Candice Pierucci (R-Herriman) was the vice-chair for the Utah House Health and Human Services Committee in the previous session, and is a member of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee. She has been in office since 2019.
In this Q&A, Pierucci discusses her thoughts on vaccine mandates, future mental and behavioral health legislative priorities, and solutions for capacity issues in hospitals and clinics.
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Patrick Jones: Can you tell me about what work you and your colleagues have done to prepare for the return of interim committees and what your goals for the remainder of the interim are?
Candice Pierucci: “As we’ve all come back from a bit of a break over the summer, front of mind for us has been the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been following the vaccine rollout and the case count in schools as a state. We prioritize getting N95 masks provided for students.
This week, we had an interim meeting, and we discussed President Biden’s executive order to businesses with over 100 employees to require the vaccine or testing. During our meeting, we actually heard from Utah businesses and residents who really were quite upset and shared their concerns and how this is going to affect them. In what is already a tight job market, Utah has one of the lowest unemployment rates. Looking to hire new employees and to retain talent, [Utahns are] really concerned that this is going to harm their efforts. So, as a caucus of House Republicans, we have issued a joint statement with the Senate that we’re planning to support our attorney general in pushing against this executive order. We’ll actually be holding a special committee hearing to gather feedback from businesses on this.
In this discussion that we’ve been having, it’s possible to be pro-vaccine [and] to believe in the vaccine and disagree with the President’s executive order. So often in this discussion, I feel like it gets muddled by conversations about the effectiveness of the vaccine and side effects of vaccine. I wanted to be clear, I’ve received the vaccine, and I am pro-vaccine. But it’s possible to be all those things and still feel that President Biden has overstepped his executive authority.”
PJ: Can you tell me about what the Attorney General and your caucus could do to push back against President Biden’s executive order?
CP: “We have limited tools available to us. I believe we’re up to 24 states who are filing a lawsuit against President Biden. We’re supportive of our Attorney General doing that. There’s another option that we have, which would be to encourage our Governor to reject [the executive order.] The executive order has come through under new OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements. So we technically — in Utah — could reject those new OSHA requirements. In the meantime, we’re gathering feedback from the public.”
PJ: What are going to be your biggest legislative issues for you and your colleagues heading into the next session?
CP: “I am working on a lot of different bills. One issue that I’ve really been digging into is our maternal mental health in Utah. In Utah, overdose is the leading cause of pregnancy related deaths here. It’s incredibly sad when we look at the data. The two reasons, generally, that are listed for a pregnant [or postpartum] woman dying is overdose and suicide. I’ve been working with these different groups really trying to understand the data, the health implications, and causes for this and looking at postpartum anxiety and depression.
Some of the things that I’m working on is finding creative solutions for women to have access to those resources that they need. We’ve been looking at potentially expanding doulas and the accessibility of doulas, particularly for our low income communities and minority communities. They’ve been really successful in the south in terms of increasing access to doulas and seeing positive results. During the most recent general session, I worked with my colleagues to prevent budget cuts to our maternal mental health program in Utah. We’re a pro family state, and this is a crisis for moms in Utah that we need to be addressing.”
PJ: So how important will mental health and behavioral health be in the next session? What problems do you see in Utah right now, and how can the legislature help expand and help Utahns?
CP: “During one of our special sessions, the state invested $90 million into a new integrated mental health center and we’re really excited about that. I think that will be a game changer in getting the resources that we need. We have consistently made significant investments in mental health as a state, and I think it’s something we’re going to continue to do. As we look to address suicide prevention and substance abuse, mental health is woven into that fabric.
We continue to look at rural behavioral health solutions. Right now in Carbon County, they have the highest unemployment and the highest opioid abuse rates [in the state]. They also have the highest opioid use amongst pregnant women. We are looking particularly at our rural counties, who are not experiencing the same economic prosperity that we are along the Wasatch Front, to see how we get the resources to them. So we’ve [given] incentives in trying to get rural physicians and therapists to stay and actually work in rural Utah. That’s going to continue to be a challenge, but something we’re committed to.
I think we are going to have to expand our capacity … [and] continue working [to] increase access. And then also, we need to look at how we change the conversation around mental health. I think it will take a couple generations of having honest, open discussions about mental health to hopefully get to the point where when someone talks about taking medication for high blood pressure, it’s viewed as the same as seeking help and maybe taking medication for your anxiety or depression. But there’s not that same stigma attached.”
PJ: Are there any plans right now to assist hospitals and primary care clinics with their workforce and capacity issues?
CP: “It’s something that we’ve discussed recently. We were talking about our nursing programs, and if there’s a way — in the last year of your nursing program — to create an expedited system where you just finish your final year while also doing helpful low level procedures that you could be engaging in our workforce.
We’ve [also] talked about COVID. Specifically [around testing.] The challenge is pulling away [valuable] health care workers to go to testing when they’re needed in our ICUs (intensive care units) and critical care. So, we have looked at and continue to use our National Guard as an option. But then considering [the] liability issues, because someone could potentially get COVID from conducting a test. If there’s a way that we can train a different workforce to actually conduct testing, [it would be] huge in helping alleviate some of the stress there that we’ll be looking at. But I think you’ll see COVID-19 will have an impact on our policy for years to come in trying to incentivize and get more students to go be nurses and doctors, and it’s going to take a lot to push that through.”
This interview was edited for clarity and length.