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IT'S ABOUT TIME

The US government is finally stepping in to help the babies of the opioid epidemic

  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

The opioid crisis in the US has ballooned into a full-blown public health emergency. Every day, 115 Americans after overdosing on opioids.

The administration of US president Donald Trump has been slow to respond to the magnitude of the epidemic. But yesterday, in a speech at the White House, Trump signed into law the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (also known as the “opioid bill”), a bipartisan piece of legislation that funneled $8 billion into efforts to combat the scourge of opioids.

During his speech, Trump acknowledged that this epidemic doesn’t just hurt adults. To deal with the opioid crisis, the US also needs to take steps to protect a generation of babies. Now, the government has laid out a blueprint for doing just that.

The opioid epidemic also hurts babies

Every 25 minutes, a baby is born in withdrawal from the opioids his or her mother took while pregnant, leading to a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. Babies born with NAS suffer from short-term health problems for up to six months after birth (including diarrhea, vomiting, high fevers, and seizures), as well as potential long-term behavior, developmental, and health consequences.

Early childhood, the time between birth and five, is a crucial time that lays the foundation for an infant’s development into a happy and healthy adult. But a mother’s drug use hurts babies during that time in their development, when they are most vulnerable to adverse childhood experiences, with disastrous long-term consequences that scientists are only just starting to grasp.

NAS is also a drag on state healthcare systems: In one city in Virginia, for example, the average cost of treatment for NAS is more than $47,000 per infant (pdf).

The government’s plan of action

NAS brings with it a large financial and public health burden. Experts say the government should invest in reversing the trend of babies born with the condition—most notably by funding medical research into the long-term effects of NAS and figuring out better ways to treat it, and by supporting treatment and recovery programs for mothers who are addicted.

The opioid bill is a positive step forward. It contains eight provisions that relate directly to maternal and infant health, and outlines a series of policies that can help state and local agencies deal with the tidal wave of NAS cases. Among other things, the bill tasks the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) with issuing recommendations to improve care for infants with NAS; helping states improve plans to care for substance-exposed infants; and issuing a report to Congress offering recommendations for pain management practices during pregnancy. The bill also tasks the Comptroller General with conducting a study on gaps in Medicaid coverage for pregnant and postpartum women with substance use disorder, allows for data gathering on NAS, and modifies a section of the Social Security Act that prevented pregnant and postpartum women receiving care for substance use disorders in a mental-health institutions from receiving other Medicaid-covered care.

That’s not all. One day before signing the opioid bill, HHS secretary Alex Azar launched a pilot program known as the “MOM model,” which stands for for “Maternal Opioid Misuse.” The program will help states integrate services for pregnant and postpartum Medicaid patients.

The Trump administration has billed these measures as evidence that it is finally taking this problem seriously. The changes come in response to months of criticism from civil society groups that Trump has failed to deliver on his promise to “liberate” Americans from the scourge of addiction. For the sake of the thousands of infant victims of this epidemic, let’s hope it’s not too late.

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

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