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Rep. Crownover Says Expanded Newborn Testing Will Save Lives

Office of Rep. Myra Crownover

On Wednesday state lawmakers on the House Public Health Committee will consider screening newborns for congenital heart defects. The bill filed by Denton Republican Myra Crownover continues her efforts to expand genetic testing for babies.

KERA’s Shelley Kofler talks with Rep. Crownover for this week’s Capitol Closeup.

  She’s a businesswoman involved in ranching, banking and energy.  A member of the House’s powerful appropriations committee. 

But since her election to the Texas House 13 years ago, the issues Rep. Crownover has arguably pushed the hardest are about protecting health and saving lives.

“We learned that for every drop of blood taken from the baby’s heel we could be testing for 29 diseases,” she said recalling her first effort to increase genetic testing for newborns.

“These are metabolic (conditions). Very rare.  But by the time they figure out what’s going on it’s too late.”

Crownover’s campaign to increase the screening of newborns for genetic disorders began in 2005.  Texas was testing babies born in hospitals and birthing centers for just seven disorders.  Crownover successfully passed a bill to test for the 29 recommended by medical professionals.

“It was a huge struggle to get that passed,” she said.  The next step was to find additional money and add testing for cystic fibrosis in 2009. 

In the past seven years the expanded testing has identified more than 700 Texas babies with genetic disorders which has allowed them to be treated early, a member of Crownover's staff said.

This session Crownover wants to add screening for critical congenital heart disease.

“When you find out a baby’s oxygen level not right it’s important you get curious and find out what’s wrong.  We’ve had some very heartbreaking stories of beautiful babies that die,” she said adding the deaths might have been prevented if the heart disease test had been available.

Another measure Crownover has resurrected this session would ban smoking statewide in most public places including sports arenas, shopping malls, restaurants and bars.  Smoking on outdoor patios would still be allowed.

But lighting up would also be prohibited at businesses where employees work indoors.

“The Commissioner of Health and Human Services has certified it will save the State of Texas $30 million dollars in Medicaid expenses alone.  This is people not missing work, people not having asthma and people not having heart attacks,” said Crownover.

The House has passed the smoking ban twice only to have it defeated in the Senate.  Some bar and pool halls owners have opposed it.

But Crownover believes this is the year the smoking ban will become state law.

“We are a very pro-life state,” she said, “and this is a very important pro-life issue.” 

As vice-chair of the Energy Resources Committee, Crownover is also pushing for more Railroad Commission inspectors.  She says they’re needed to monitor oil and gas pipelines and protect the public from any leaks.

She’s at the table where appropriations members are wrangling over additional money for public education and universities.

But throughout those high stakes debates she’ll continue to promote the health care issues she’s come to own.

Especially the genetic testing effort, which she calls “a labor of love.”

“It’s one of those things that matters to some family we’ll never know, some baby we will never know about.  But it matters and it is truly a preventable tragedy,” Crownover said.

Legislative budget analysts have not yet estimated the cost of additional newborn testing but Crownover says it should be minimal because hospitals already have the necessary equipment.  

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.