LINCOLN — Health officials could be getting another tool to attack the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in Omaha.
Nebraska lawmakers gave first-round approval Wednesday to a bill authorizing health care providers to prescribe antibiotics for the sexual partners of patients infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea.
The prescriptions could be provided without requiring the partner to come in for treatment.
Legislative Bill 528 advanced despite opponents who said it represented bad policy and would “promote promiscuity.”
The bill's sponsor, State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, said health officials hope the practice can help make headway against Douglas County's high STD rates.
“Because we're having such an epidemic in Nebraska, medical providers must have tools outside of the usual,” she said.
Douglas County has been in the midst of an STD epidemic for more than a decade.
The county has the highest rate of chlamydia infections in the nation and, in 2011, Nebraska ranked worse than 31 other states for its gonorrhea rates.
Both diseases can create health problems for those infected and for babies born to infected women, Howard said. Chlamydia and gonorrhea put babies at risk of blindness, life-threatening infections and premature birth.
In 2011, there were 317 babies affected by chlamydia or gonorrhea in Nebraska, she said.
“My bill overall is to stem the tide of disease in this state, and I believe this can do it,” she said.
Others said providers should not write prescriptions for people without seeing them or getting their full medical history.
“There needs to be treatment, it needs to be addressed but not treated blindly,” said Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft. She also objected to providers treating minors without notifying parents.
But Howard pointed out that, since 1972, Nebraska law has allowed minors to seek treatment for an STD without involving their parents.
She said the goal of the 1972 law is to fight disease. Senators rejected an amendment to LB 528 that would have changed that law by requiring providers to ask the ages of parents and partners and notifying parents of minors getting treatment.
Another opponent, Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, said the bill would promote promiscuity by allowing partners to have sex, avoid seeing a doctor and yet get treated for disease.
“I understand there's an epidemic because people have lost their morals,” he said.
But Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, the Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman, said Nebraska's medical community, pharmacists and public health officials all back the proposed practice, which is called expedited partner therapy, because they realize something needs to be done about STDs in the state.
The practice is recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a way to break the cycle of infection, treatment and reinfection.
Some health care providers already are writing prescriptions for both patients and partners, Howard said. But because state law is silent on the practice, public clinics and some private providers have not wanted to do that.
As a result, patients treated for chlamydia or gonorrhea are more likely to get reinfected from untreated partners. With partner therapy, health care providers could write prescriptions for both partners, even if one is unable or unwilling to come in for treatment.
Guidelines require providers to call the partners to verify their names and to check on allergies before writing the second prescription.
LB 528 advanced on a 32-3 vote. Many of those who raised concerns about the bill abstained from voting.
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