When Dale and Carrie Fuller lost their son Landon, the hospital gave them a bereavement packet to help them get through their grief.
But there was no health insurance to cover the child, who was delivered without a heartbeat one week before his due date. And there was no coverage for an autopsy to see what went wrong during the pregnancy. The Fullers had bought diapers and clothes for their unborn child. They never expected to have to pay for a funeral and a headstone.
The Fullers are among a growing number of Minnesotans who have lost a child to stillbirth, the unintended death of a fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Each year, there are about 400 stillbirths in Minnesota and 26,000 nationally — a number that’s gone up in recent years.
“If your child is stillborn, it’s this gray area; it’s not covered under anything,” Dale Fuller said, estimating they spent more than $5,000 when they lost Landon. “You still buried this child. You still bought things for this child. You are missing time away from work. All these things you had to go through as if you buried a living child you had to go through if you buried a stillborn child and there’s no financial coverage for that.”
To help cover some of those costs, the Fullers, along with a coalition of other parents who have lost children to stillbirth, got together in early 2016 to lobby the Minnesota Legislature for a one-time, $2,000 tax credit. It seemed like a good year to try. Democrats and Republicans both expressed interest in passing a tax bill, and legislators had a $900 million budget surplus to spend. What’s more, opposition to the tax credit was nonexistent: No one openly opposed the bill during the session, and it had sponsors from members of both political parties.
Even so, the proposal just barely made it to the finish line, an experience that shows just how difficult it is to get something — even something both parties agree on — accomplished in the current Minnesota Legislature. And now the tax credit’s advocates are having to do something they never expected to be part of the process: lobbying to make sure it doesn’t go away.
A bipartisan strategy
It was the night before Amanda Duffy’s scheduled Caesarean section when something seemed wrong. She hadn’t felt her baby move for hours, so she and her husband, Chris, went into the hospital for a checkup.
During an ultrasound, the doctor couldn’t detect a heartbeat, only a few blips of brain activity on the monitor. Amanda was rushed into an emergency C-section. When she woke up, the doctor told her she’d delivered a baby girl with red hair — like her father — but she had shifted in the birth canal and the umbilical cord wrapped twice around her neck, cutting off circulation to her brain. After 15 minutes, they couldn’t resuscitate her.
“It hit me, I have a dead daughter,” Amanda said. “They asked me if I wanted to see her. I was terrified. I didn’t know what a dead baby looks like, but I needed to see her. They wheeled her in and she just looked like a sleeping baby. She was still pink and I held her and I stopped crying. I was so proud.”
This spring, the Duffys went to St. Paul to describe the experience losing their daughter Reese, the name they gave her that day in the hospital, to the House Taxes Committee.
“Just hearing your story breaks my heart. I just gave birth to my first-born son about two months ago and I can’t even imagine,” Rep. Anna Wills, R-Rosemont, told the Duffys.
In committee, no one spoke against the credit and it was laid over for possible inclusion in a broader tax bill.
The measure’s supporters had secured a bipartisan set of bill sponsors for the credit: Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, and Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope. But Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate were already fighting over issues they agreed on, like extending unemployment benefits to out-of-work miners on the Iron Range. No one was certain a tax bill — any tax bill — would pass.
Rest, a top Senate Democrat who chairs the chamber’s Tax Reform Committee, thought it might be safer to tuck the credit into the supplemental budget bill, which was less of a political football than the tax bill. The total cost of the proposal was $800,000 a year to cover the estimated 400 Minnesota families who experience a stillbirth, according to estimates from the Minnesota Department of Health, and the proposal would be retroactive to Jan. 1 to cover the entire 2016 tax year.
The strategy worked: The stillbirth tax credit was included in the budget bill, which was signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton shortly after the legislative session adjourned. The tax bill, on the other hand, managed to pass the Legislature but was vetoed by Dayton after legislators made a minor drafting error that would have cost the state $100 million over three years. Talks to bring legislators back for a special session to repass the tax bill have all ended without an agreement.
“We were a little afraid of that because of the political environment that nothing would get done,” Dale Fuller said. “They could see the writing on the wall that the tax bill wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
The public-relations campaign
With the governor’s signature, Minnesota became the fifth state to offer the stillborn tax credit to families. But for the Fullers and others who pushed to get the credit passed, the work wasn’t over.
Tax policies can come and go: After being one of the first states to pass the stillbirth tax credit in 2006, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder eliminated it in 2011 as part of a massive tax overhaul. In Minnesota, legislators regularly rework the state’s tax code as part of major reforms.
The Fullers and Duffys knew Minnesota’s new stillbirth credit could potentially go away too, but maybe not if they could make a good case for it to stay. They launched their own grass-roots public-relations efforts to make sure families across the state knew the tax credit was an option.
“It’s been added to the tax software and the Department of Revenue has communicated out to tax professionals about this,” Dale Fuller said. “So, from a state perspective, they’ve communicated what they can, but we all know at the end of the day, people do their taxes in various ways. We want the families to be able to advocate for themselves.”
With the help of the Star Legacy Foundation, which advocates for stillbirth research and education, the families have called more than 40 hospitals across the state and created information cards about the credit and how to claim it. To get the tax credit, parents need to provide a Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth from the hospital where their baby was delivered. If families don’t get it immediately, the process can take weeks, which can dissuade some from filing for the credit, Duffy said.
It’s been a long process, and advocates hope the numbers will show that Minnesota families used the tax credit this year. That will make it harder for legislators to eliminate it if the discussion ever comes up again.
“I didn’t know quite what we were getting into,” Amanda Duffy said. “But whatever it meant and whatever we had to do, we were going to push forward.”