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More Pennsylvania Babies Born Addicted To Drugs, Report Finds

Toby Talbot
Associated Press
A new report finds that 15 in every 1,000 babies in Pennsylvania are born addicted to drugs, including opioids.

Fifteen in every 1,000 babies born in Pennsylvania in 2016 and 2017 were suffering from drug withdrawal, according to a new report from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council. 

That's more than 1,900 newborns statewide born premature, underweight or in respiratory distress, all part of neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a pregnant woman addicted to drugs--often opioids--passes her addiction to the fetus, who experiences addiction withdrawal upon birth. 

Credit Screenshot / Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council
Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council
The rate of babies born with drug withdrawal symptoms has increased by 1000 percent in the last 17 years.

PHC4 Executive Director Joseph Martin said opioids are an "equal opportunity offender," and that the drug's effects on mothers and their children are an extension of a wider epidemic.

"It's just essentially becoming passed down," he said. "So, you know, as mothers are becoming addicted, children are addicted."

According to the data, newborns in withdrawal stay in the hospital for 17 days, or five times that of the average newborn. They also have difficulty feeding, and can be in so much pain that they cannot be touched, according to Martin.

And those symptoms can persist.

"These are problems that are going to follow these kids into the future," Martin said. "There are a lot of great treatment options going on to wean these kids off their withdrawal symptoms."

Neonatal abstinence syndrome is most common among white newborns of mothers whose median household income is less than $60,000 per year. Western Pennsylvania bears a heavier burden than other parts of the state, and Allegheny County rates are similar to the statewide average at 15.6 babies per 1,000 born, or about 399 babies in 2016 and 2017 combined.

The area's surrounding counties have higher rates, and Greene County leads statewide with 76. Clinton and Tioga counties recorded the lowest rates at 3.2.

Credit Screenshot / Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council
Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council
The western portion of Pennsylvania sees the most instances of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. County rates per 1,000 newborn hospital stays are seen in this map.

PHC4 was created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1986 to collect, analyze and report "information that can be used to improve the quality and restrain the cost of health care in the state," according to the report. As such, PHC4 monitors the syndrome to address the condition's impact on health care finances.

The report concludes that in Pennsylvania, neonatal abstinence syndrome-related hospital stays amounted to $14.1 million in payments to Medicaid in 2017. Medicaid was the primary form of payment in nearly 87 percent of that treatment, as opposed to nearly 41 percent of all other newborn hospital stays.

Public and private groups are working to reduce withdrawal's impact on both health and health care costs, Martin said, including hospitals, insurance companies, business and labor unions. 

"A lot of additional resources are being put into place to deal with it, and hopefully we'll be able to get this under control," he said.

In January, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared the heroin and opioid epidemic as a statewide disaster emergency.

“I am taking this step to protect Pennsylvanians from this looming public health crisis, and I am using every tool at my disposal to get those suffering from substance use disorders into treatment, save more lives and improve response coordination," he said at the time.

Wolf established 13 initiatives to combat the crisis. Among them was to add children born in withdrawal and overdoses to the state's list of communicable and noncommunicable diseases so that the Pennsylvania Department of Health can collect more data on the ways that drug addictions affect Pennsylvanians.