Rate of infants born on opioids soaring
The number of babies born in the throes of drug withdrawal is soaring amid the Bay State’s heroin crisis, according to new state data officials say could guide how millions of dollars in federal funding is used to help the epidemic’s youngest victims.
The state counted 1,197 cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome in 2015, a 27 percent spike from just four years earlier, according to a 100-page report state health officials quietly filed with lawmakers last week.
At a rate of more than 17 NAS babies discharged per 1,000 births, Massachusetts is trending at three times the national average, with some regions faring far worse. Southern Bristol County, along the Route 24 corridor, has rates as high as 74 discharges per 1,000 births. Cape Cod and the Berkshires reported highs of 43 births.
“The numbers are pretty compelling,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who co-chaired the task force behind the report. “We need to target our resources in those areas in particular for women who have given birth and need post-delivery services. When I look at that map, we have to meet the needs of women and babies in those communities as opposed to other priorities we may have in addiction treatment.”
Gail Garinger, a former judge now in Attorney General Maura Healey’s office who served as the task force’s other co-chairwoman, said, “What we really need to recognize is this is a major health epidemic.”
Under a health care waiver Gov. Charlie Baker negotiated with the Obama administration, the state in July is slated to receive $25 million toward treatment services under Medicaid. Portions of that money will go toward NAS services, she said.
Hospital officials say it’s sorely needed. The average hospital stay for an infant with NAS was nearly three weeks with costs averaging $30,000 as of 2013.
“We are seeing this in our labor delivery rooms. We’re seeing the effect in our nurseries,” said Dr. Joseph Weinstein, chief medical officer for Steward Health Care System. “We know the prevalence is significantly higher in the South Coast, Fall River area. The best utilization (of funds) is identifying these women early on, and hopefully getting them through their pregnancy.”
Infants with NAS, who are more broadly described as substance-exposed newborns, are at higher risk of medical problems and developmental delays, said Dr. Elisha Wachman, a neonatologist at Boston Medical Center. But ongoing outpatient care is lacking, and little data exists on what happens to the children long-term, she said.
“I think it’s continuing to increase,” Wachman said. “I don’t think I’ve seen any data anywhere to suggest that things are slowing down.”