Healthier babies

September 30, 2007

It makes good sense: Give a low-income pregnant woman intensive care and support and make sure she gets proper nutrition - and her baby will be healthier at birth with a lower probability of developmental problems. That's the aim of Healthy Start, a federally funded program with 100 projects across the country, including one in Baltimore.

But reauthorization of the program has been languishing in Congress since 2005. Legislation that would give Healthy Start, which saves money and lives, more time and perhaps more money is finally moving and deserves to pass sooner rather than later.

In Maryland and in Baltimore, decreases in the infant mortality rate and the percentage of babies weighing 5.5 pounds or less have stagnated in recent years. A number of prenatal and postnatal issues, such as lack of adequate health care, poor nutrition and drug or alcohol abuse, explain most low-birthweight results as well as about two-thirds of deaths among children age 5 and under.

Baltimore's Healthy Start program, which has three local centers, has used aggressive outreach and home visits to educate pregnant women and new moms about what they need to do to deliver healthy babies and to promote their healthy development. But despite decreases in very low-birthweight babies born to hundreds of women enrolled in the program, and research showing that every healthy birth saves thousands in postpartum health care costs, the Baltimore program has lost about half of its original $8 million in funding since it started in 1991.

Congress may provide some additional dollars for the national program through a conference committee - the Senate has recommended level funding at about $100 million and the House would increase funding to $120 million. City health officials are also looking to add more dollars to help the program expand to four more locations, possibly with additional money from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Both nationally and locally, expanding the Healthy Start program should mean more healthy babies, with a better start toward healthy lives.

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