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One Baby per Hour Born Drug Dependent

Researchers Say It's a Growing Maternal and Child Health Problem in the U.S.

'Overprescribed' continued...

Not all babies exposed to opiates in the womb will be born dependent on drugs, Patrick says, which probably explains why the percentage of pregnant women who used the drugs increased more than that of babies born with drug dependence.

About 60% to 80% of babies who were exposed to heroin or methadone in the womb will experience withdrawal after birth, he says. But women who have an opiate dependence shouldn't try to quit taking opiates abruptly while pregnant, he says, because withdrawal in the womb "can be dangerous for both mom and baby."

Generally, babies born in withdrawal are treated with oral morphine or methadone, Patrick says, but surveys show that treatment varies around the country. "I think we need more research dollars for studies on how to best take care of these babies." In some hospitals, they might spend the entire time in the neonatal intensive care unit, he says, while in others they might go straight to the general pediatric floor.

On average, the cost of treating each of these babies was $53,400 in 2009, a 35% increase over 2000, although their length of stay in the hospital, 16 days, remained the same, the researchers found.

Burden on States as Well as Patients

''Four out of five such babies were insured by Medicaid, a program funded by the federal government and the states to cover low-income individuals. That's one reason "my hope is that this will get attention outside of neonatologists," Patrick says.

States have started to pay attention, he says. More than 30 have registries to try to identify people who might be "doctor shopping," or seeking opiate prescriptions from multiple doctors.

In addition, Florida lawmakers this year established a statewide task force on prescription drug abuse and newborns. Task force members, charged with examining the scope of the problem, the cost of caring for affected babies, long-term effects, and prevention strategies, include the state's attorney general and surgeon general.

Patrick presented his research at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in Boston, and the Journal of the American Medical Association posted it early online.

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