Babies on Drugs: Massachusetts Health Officials Say Crisis Getting Worse

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BOSTON – The number of newborn babies in Massachusetts diagnosed with drug withdrawal is rising faster than the national rate, according to new data released this week by the state’s Health Policy Commission.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, as the condition is called, has risen 27 percent in the past four years, most notably in the southeast quadrant of the state, which includes the cities of New Bedford and Fall River. It’s a growing health crisis in a region already beset with opioid abuse.

The problem led to the creation earlier this year of a task force chaired by MaryLou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, and Gail Garinger, head of the Attorney General’s Child and Youth Protection Unit and a former juvenile court judge.

The task force’s mission, as outlined by Sudders at its first meeting last month, is to collect data, develop goals, and provide quality service to these infants and their mothers statewide. The research is scheduled to be completed by March 1, 2017, when the task force is supposed to present its findings to the state Legislature.

The interagency task force is also supposed to cut through the red tape of the government’s various health offices in order to streamline care for infants with drug-related problems. To that end, the task force has established an advisory council of 41 members, all representing various sectors of the health industry, with a focus on maternal and neonatal care. This council will be responsible for analyzing the collected data and reporting back to the task force any gaps or weaknesses they find in the state’s ability to care for infant patients with drug-related symptoms.

At the task force’s second meeting, held Monday in the higher echelons of the McCormack Building on Beacon Hill, members heard the Health Policy Commission’s executive director, David Seltz, outline the bleak data regarding maternal opioid use and infant withdrawals in Massachusetts. To offset the discouraging graphs and charts however, Seltz also presented information on the six initiatives that the commission is funding throughout Massachusetts, focusing on pre-natal, in-patient, and post-discharge care for opioid-dependent mothers and infants.

The initiatives include increasing use of medications during pregnancy to counteract the harmful effects of illegal drugs and providing bedside psychotherapy shortly after birth, as well as developing innovative techniques to treat infant withdrawals.

Sudders said the programs have one glaring deficiency:  Most of the funding is allocated according to “applicant competitiveness.” That means, Seltz explained, that those hospitals who have the resources and personnel to implement the programs receive the funding. In other words, the best-equipped hospitals will receive the most help. As it stands now, the majority of the funding is being directed towards research and teaching hospitals such as UMass Memorial Medical Center and Boston Medical Center. These hospitals frequently have a greater lobbying capacity, and the ability to assemble impressive applications, or to quote Secretary Sudders at the meeting: “We all know where the grant writers are.”

Consequently, the hospitals with the highest rate of diagnoses, among them Morton in Taunton, Charlton in Fall River, and St. Luke’s in New Bedford– all of which are located in the most affected southeast region and average greater than 50 Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome discharges for every 1,000 births – are currently not receiving funding for the these new outreach programs.

According to Seltz, once the Advisory Council has met to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Commonwealth’s abilities to deal with the problem, task force members will be able to disseminate the council’s advice to those hospitals without enough resources to qualify for state funding.

The task force is scheduled to meet January 18 to review the council’s findings.