Editorial: Opioid-addicted babies collateral damage in drug epidemic

Updated Jan 17, 2018
  • By The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
TY WRIGHT
Abandoned, the opioid-addicted babies are left to be weaned off the powerful drugs in local hospitals’ Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU). (Ty Wright/The New York Times)

The most tragic, innocent casualties of the opioid crisis are lying in bassinets in hospitals like St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

Screaming babies, bodies trembling from withdrawal, born to opioid-addicted mothers. Maybe they’re not as headline-grabbing as tales of children discovered in the backseats of cars with their parents passed out from drug overdoses in the front, or toddlers left alone in fetid apartments for days while drug-addled mothers or fathers scour the streets for a fix.

But there has been a troubling spike in Palm Beach County’s Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) births since 2011, which local child and health advocates believe is owed mostly to the opioid epidemic.

“It really breaks your heart,” Lisa Williams-Taylor, CEO of the Children Services Council of Palm Beach County, told the Post Editorial Board. “We have to get more people talking about this.”

To be sure, opioid-addicted babies aren’t the epidemic’s only collateral damage, to use the war-like phrase that’s worked its way into the lexicon of the crisis. From young paramedics developing post-traumatic stress disorder to children and families torn apart by overdosing addicts, the victims of this scourge are growing faster than state and local leaders are willing or equipped to combat it.

But to suffer the effects of addiction from birth – that’s a category of damage all its own. The figures are sobering. The number of NAS births in the county to women addicted to opioids jumped from 31 in 2011 to 160 in 2016, according to the state Department of Health and Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA). Statewide, NAS births grew from 1,563 in 2011 to 4,215 in 2016.

Put another way, that’s an increase of 2.25 births per 1,000 county newborns in 2011, to 10.69 in 2016. In the state, it skyrocketed from 7.33 births per 1,000 in 2011 to 18.73 in 2016.

And there’s little reason to believe the problem abated in 2017. “Truthfully, we really don’t know how big and pervasive this problem is,” said Becky Walker, chief operating officer of the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, which helps treat people with substance abuse issues. “There are women who just get up and leave the baby at the hospital going to their next fix, so we have no way of helping them.”

Abandoned, the babies are left to be weaned off the powerful drugs in local hospitals’ neonatal intensive care units. Once the infants are released, they become the problem of an already overburdened foster care and child welfare system, according to a recent University of South Florida study.

As Post staff writers Pat Beall and Mike Stucka reported in December 2016, state lawmakers believed in 2011 that a crackdown on pill mills and in particular OxyContin sales would curb NAS. But as heroin supplanted prescription drugs, NAS cases grew, as did the price to taxpayers. From 2010 to 2015, NAS was a $967 million statewide problem for hospitals the Post found; five of every six dollars were billed to Medicaid.

“The numbers and rates are up dramatically in recent years,” said Taylor, whose agency focuses on prevention and early intervention. “But we’re still getting additional, more specific data (from state health agencies).”

The data will help justify and target resources to deal with the growth in opioid-addicted babies — but only if Florida lawmakers finally commit real dollars to fighting the epidemic.

Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend $53 million — more than half of it from federal funds — to address the opioid issue. The money prioritizes drug users, dealers and doctors, not children and families.

More on target is a bill (SB 434) proposed by Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, that would create a two-year pilot project to help provide care to infants with NAS by licensing niche social-service providers and allowing them to participate in the Medicaid program. The bill, which has a companion in the House, wouldn’t limit the number of licenses AHCA could award during the pilot project, but it would require that they go to nonprofits and that the providers have on-call medical directors.

Passidomo said licensing the new social-service providers could increase the children’s comfort levels and reduce the costs of caring for the infants by as much as 80 percent.

A reduction in costs to taxpayers is good. But this is more than just a cost-saving issue. This is a life-saving issue. These babies didn’t choose to be addicts. To give them a chance at a productive life, that’s up to us.