Supporters express disappointment in Maui Rep. Kyle Yamashita’s decision to not even give the bill a hearing.

A measure to allow unlicensed birth workers to continue offering their services in Hawaii on a permanent basis has died in the Legislature.

House Bill 955 cleared two committees before stalling this month in the House Finance Committee chaired by Rep. Kyle Yamashita.

Yamashita, whose Maui district includes Makawao, Kula and other Upcountry areas, declined to schedule a hearing on the bill despite substantial public support, a rally and a sit-in outside his office. He did not make himself available for an interview this week.

Traditional midwives gathered Thursday at the State Capitol to rally to ensure their voices were heard and that their practices were not hindered or outlawed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The bill would have paved the way for apprentice-trained midwives, also known as birth attendants, to work indefinitely after July 1.

Because the proposed legislation didn’t get a hearing in Yamashita’s committee, unlicensed birth workers will no longer be able to legally work after midnight on June 30, leaving a gap especially in rural parts of the neighbor islands where medical care is limited.

The deadline was spelled out in a 2019 law that requires midwives in Hawaii to be licensed by attending a school accredited by the Midwifery Education Accreditation Council.

There are no such schools in Hawaii and licensing credentials from those institutions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, creating expensive and logistical hurdles for prospective midwives.

Introduced by Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick, House Bill 955 sought to remedy the situation by not only allowing birth attendants to keep practicing without licenses indefinitely but by also creating a pathway to licensure through apprenticeship.

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick introduced the measure to let midwives continue practicing without licenses in Hawaii. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The bill received strong public support, including hundreds of letters of endorsement and resolutions from county councils, trade associations, nonprofits, the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, and more.

Criticism came from groups including the Hawaii chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Midwives Alliance of Hawaii and Ahahui O Na Kauka, a Native Hawaiian physicians’ organization.  

Supporters say it’s stunning that a bill with so much support would simply die because a committee chair decided not to give it a hearing.

“I was disgusted when I saw the video of Yamashita refusing to talk to people who were waiting outside his office to talk to him. Very disheartening,” said Tara Compehos, a certified professional midwife in the Kau District of Hawaii island.

But Rachel Curnel Streumpf, also a certified professional midwife on the Big Island, said it’s not surprising.

Rachel Curnel Streumpf supported the measure. (Courtesy: Rachel Curnel Streumpf)

Curnel Streumpf said she’s heard from many legislators who told her they would like to support the bill. But they were unwilling to get crosswise with Yamashita by trying to bypass his committee and calling for a vote on the House floor. That would be tantamount to what she called “political suicide.”

“It’s politics, man. If they go against the head of the Finance Committee, and any bill that they’ve written this year goes through his committee, he’s going to remember,” Curnel Streumpf said.

House Majority Leader Nadine Nakamura said the bill had several shortcomings and needs more work.

It doesn’t offer clear definitions for birth workers, nor does it set common standards, accountability measures or disclosure requirements, Nakamura said.  

Rep. Nadine Nakamura said the bill needed more work before it could become law. (Courtesy: Hawaii House)

She also noted that more than 1,000 bills get introduced every legislative session and only about a third of them move and even fewer end up passing and getting signed into law. So it wasn’t surprising that HB 955 didn’t get a hearing in the Finance Committee.

Lea Minton, board president of Midwives Alliance of Hawaii, is among those who opposed the legislation for various reasons related to health, consumer safety and professional standards.

Anyone practicing midwifery must be licensed as a midwife, said Minton, a nurse midwife with a master’s degree from Columbia University, according to her online bio.

The way she sees it, birth attendants can continue to offer their services as long as they don’t call or advertise themselves as midwives, so not much will change after July 1. A lot of the public outcry over HB 955 is based on misunderstanding, in Minton’s view.

Traditional midwives gathered at the State Capital to rally to ensure their voices were heard and that their practices were not hindered or outlawed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“There is essentially a very well-crafted social media campaign to pull at people’s heart strings to believe that rights are being taken away and that’s not what the midwife law does,” Minton said.

Russell Stewart, who participated in the rally at the Capitol on Thursday, said midwives have practiced without licenses for many years in Hawaii and they should be allowed to continue to do so.

“It’s part of Hawaiian culture,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s wife is a midwife, and midwifery services are offered as part of a ministry at The Ark, a church he said he founded in Kaneohe.

Thursday marked first crossover, the deadline for bills to have passed their originating chamber and cross over to the House or Senate for consideration.

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