A heartbreaking study published earlier this week details the alarming rate at which infants across America are being born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), and the findings are almost too troubling to read. NAS refers to a series of withdrawal symptoms and behaviors, such as shaking, vomiting, refusing to eat, and high-pitched screaming, that result when newborns have been exposed in utero to opioids, which include oxycontin, vicodin, or heroin.
If that’s not a sobering reminder of just how bad the drug epidemic has become in America — as well as just how badly it’s affecting families and children everywhere — then I don’t know what is. Opioid use in particular has been on the rise for years, with multiple studies citing its use among pregnant mothers increased five-fold between 2000 and 2012. (Just let that sink in for a minute.) And the impacts have been devastating, in a myriad of ways.
For one, the recovery process for infants is grueling. As a result of their painful withdrawal symptoms, newborns with NAS experience longer stays in hospitals (an average of 18 days) post-birth, and are at an increased rate for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Depending on the severity of the newborn’s withdrawal, doctors may prescribe morphine or methadone and keep the child at the hospital for months in an attempt to slowly wean them off the addiction.
But the economic impact this is having is also quite eye-opening: According to the study, which was published in JAMA, cumulative medical expenses for infants alone increased from $732 million to $1.5 billion — and much of that increase has been attributed to the costs associated with opioid withdrawal recovery. Medicaid is currently covering about 80% of the cost.
And its impacting rural areas of the country the most. In fact, the number of infants suffering from withdrawal symptoms increased from 12.9% to 21.2% from 2004 to 2013. Study researchers have highlighted this as a particular cause for concern, writing: “This geographic disparity highlights the urgent need for policymakers to appropriate funding for clinicians and programs that could improve access to opioid prevention and treatment services for rural women and children.”
Lily’s Place is one such treatment center. Located in Huntington, West Virginia, the clinic offers a residential treatment program for newborns suffering from any type of drug withdrawal and is located on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. In fact, in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control listed West Virginia as one of the five states with the highest number of deaths due to drug overdose.
The city of Huntington itself came into the national spotlight back in August when 27 people overdosed within a course of four hours, leaving health care officials scrambling to provide sufficient help. Dr. Sean Loudin, the medical director at Lily’s Place, told CNN that 1 out of every 10 newborns he sees has neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is 13 times the national average.
Speaking with Babble, Madison Anderson, the Director of Development at Lily’s Place, explains that the clinic first opened its doors back in October 2014, after nurses working at nearby Cabell Huntington Hospital saw a growing need for a residential drug recovery center for infants without the jarring pace of hospitals. The center has since garnered national attention and is striving to set benchmarks with their book, How to Create a Neonatal Withdrawal Center: A New Model of Care for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.
Lily’s Place treats an estimate of 100 neonatal patients per year and of the 10 infants currently in residence, all are being treated for opioid addiction, Anderson says. The center has a no-judgment policy towards family members and the in-house social worker works closely with Child Protective Services and caregivers to help create a stable family for the infant.
Lily’s Place is an excellent example of how to take something so difficult and help figure out solutions, one child at a time. However, these new findings underscore just how desperately public policies have to improve — not only for the lethal numbers of opioid prescriptions being written by doctors, but also through decriminalization and better recovery options for mothers.