NEW YORK -- Caring for newborn infants whose mothers used crack cocaine during their pregnancy added more than $500 million a year nationally to the costs of normal labor, delivery and newborn care in 1990, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Altogether, the nation's cocaine-exposed infants ran up an estimated $504 million in hospital costs, said the study in the AMA journal. That figure was based on the National Institute on Drug Abuse's estimate that 158,400 babies were born to cocaine-using mothers last year.
That news did not surprise health officials, who have long pushed for more drug treatment slots for pregnant addicts.
Crack addiction adds about $3,000 per delivery to an infant's care, the study found. Cocaine-exposed babies required hospitalization four days longer than non-cocaine-exposed babies. Contrary to the usual argument made by health officials advocating drug treatment, that $3,000 is less than the cost of putting a mother and child in drug treatment.
That cost ranges from $6,000 to $26,000, according to statistics from the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality.
"But the lifetime cost of crack exposure could be $400,000. And an addicted woman could have not one child but six, so $3,000 is just the beginning," said the March of Dimes' New York executive director, Nina Hill, citing the national study.
An earlier study in Maryland estimated the medical cost for each child at $50,000.
The cost of caring for an estimated 7,440 possibly drug-addicted babies born in 1990 in Maryland could amount to about $300 million over their childhood, according to the state task force report made public in March 1990.
The 29-member panel was established by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the state Department of Human Resources to look into the burgeoning problem of mothers who use cocaine during pregnancy.
Recognizing the state's money crunch, the task force set priorities for prevention and intervention services that would run four years or more. It was not clear yesterday whether the state's current budget includes funding for any of the task force recommendations.
Ciaran S. Phibbs, a San Francisco-based health economist and researcher who wrote the national study, said he was surprised by some of his own findings about the effects of crack on newborn infants.
"We were surprised that contrary to the media stories about crack babies, most of the infants were not low birth-weight babies. Only 3.7 percent weighed less than 1,500 grams," Phibbs said.
Researchers at Harlem Hospital Center did drug tests on all newborn babies in the hospital from Sept. 1, 1985, to Aug. 31, 1986, a total of 2,810 babies. Of those, 355 had been exposed to cocaine.
The doctors compared the hospital care for babies of cocaine-using mothers and its cost to a random sample of 199 babies born at the hospital who were not exposed to crack.
Among their findings:
* The cocaine-exposed babies were no more likely to die than the other babies, with the death rate about 1 percent in both cases.
* Most of the mothers who used crack, 83 percent, also smoked cigarettes and 40 percent drank alcohol during their pregnancy. Of the mothers of crack-negative babies, 17 percent smoked and 5 percent drank.
* Most of the mothers who used crack, 71 percent, got prenatal care and 95.5 percent of the non-users got prenatal care.