Medical Bills Soar With Premature Babies

Costs Are Much Higher for Babies Born Prematurely

From the WebMD Archives

March 28, 2005 -- Premature babies bring much higher medical bills in their first year of life than full-term babies.

The costs, reported by the March of Dimes, underscore the challenges facing premature babies, who are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Those infants are more likely to die or have complications and disabilities than full-term babies.

Prematurity is the No. 1 killer of newborns, says the March of Dimes. Medical advances can help keep young, tiny babies alive. Still, the earlier a baby is born, the more likely they are to face problems.

No one can completely eliminate the chance of early delivery. However, getting prenatal care and following general guidelines for a healthy pregnancy help reduce the risk.

Growing Numbers of Premature Babies

More and more babies are being born early in America. The numbers have notched upwards for more than 20 years.

The reasons why aren't totally clear. Increases in older mothers and multiple births (such as twins) could have something to do with it. Premature babies are also more common among African-American women and women younger than 17 or older than 35. About half a million premature babies were born in 2003, the journal Pediatrics reported earlier this month. That's 12.3% of all babies, a slight increase from 2002.

The number is up 16% since 1990, says the Pediatrics study. Since 1981, the number has skyrocketed by 29%, says the March of Dimes.

Any pregnancy can result in a premature birth. However, risk factors include:

  • Lack of prenatal care
  • Cervical infection
  • Previous preterm labor or premature birth
  • Pregnancy with more than one baby (such as twins or triplets)
  • Age (younger than 18 or older than 40 years)
  • Race (premature births are less common in white women)
  • Poverty
  • Exposure to the medication DES (diethylstilbestrol)
  • Certain structural abnormalities of the cervix or uterus
  • Smoking or using cocaine during pregnancy
  • Becoming pregnant while using an IUD and leaving it in place during the pregnancy
  • Being seriously underweight when becoming pregnant
  • Previous second-trimester miscarriages or three or more elective abortions
  • Extremely physical, strenuous work

Call a doctor at the first sign of preterm labor. It may possible to delay the baby's birth or improve the outcome of an early birth.

Estimated Costs of Premature Babies 15 Times Greater

Employers pay nearly $42,000 in average health care costs in a premature baby's first year of life, says the March of Dimes. That compares to about $2,800 for a full-term baby with no complications.

The figures include hospitalization, drugs, doctor visits, and time off from work needed by the mothers of premature babies. The numbers came from a database of millions of U.S. employees and their dependents.

Across the board, premature babies needed more medical attention, bringing higher costs.

Hospital charges alone cost businesses and private insurers $7.4 billion annually, says the report. Other findings include:

  • Average hospital time: 2.3 days for full-term babies; 16.8 days for premature infants
  • First-year doctor visits: six for full-term babies; nine for premature babies
  • Mother's short-term disability leave in the six months after birth: 10 extra days for premature babies (29 days, compared with 19 for full-term babies).

Show Sources

SOURCES: Thomson Medstat for the March of Dimes, "The Costs of Prematurity to U.S. Employers." March of Dimes, "Premature Birth: Cost to Business." Martin, J. Pediatrics, March 2005; vol 115: pp 619-634. WebMD Medical News: "Older Moms Among Latest Birth Trends In U.S." WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Preterm Labor and Birth -- The Basics." March of Dimes, "Prematurity: Are You At Increased Risk?"
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