Babies of the opioid epidemic: Bipartisan bill sails through US House

A bill seeking to better support babies born with a dependency on opioid drugs has passed unanimously in the US House of Representatives.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Lisa Collinsworth holds her infant son Luke during an October visit with him at Lily's Place, a treatment center for opioid-dependent newborns in Huntington, W.Va. On May 11, a bill seeking to better support babies born with a dependency on opioid drugs passed unanimously in the US House of Representatives.

As part of a suite of bills targeting the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation Wednesday to raise the standard of safety planning for children born with a dependency on opiates.

A similar bill awaits consideration in the Senate, one of more than a dozen aiming to address the addiction to pain pills and cheap heroin that has swept across the United States.

The legislation was born as a result of a Reuters investigation last December, "Helpless and Hooked," which detailed the deaths of at least 110 babies since 2010, born with a dependency or exposure to opioids and sent home with parents ill-equipped to care for them.

"It's hard to imagine that stories like these could be any more tragic," Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the prime sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor. "Unfortunately, they are. Because they should have and in many cases could have been prevented."

According to the investigation, a mere nine of 50 states adhered to a federal law requiring that they track and assist such newborns.

The public health crisis occasioned by this addiction scourge has ballooned in recent years, with more than 130,000 babies having suffered symptoms related to drug withdrawal at birth over the past decade, the majority of which were never reported to state child-protection authorities.

"While the effect of the crisis on adults is daunting enough – heroin-related overdoses have nearly quadrupled in the past decade – it becomes particularly heart-rending when it reaches into the nation’s hospital nurseries," The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported in March. "In 2012, experts estimated that about one baby was born every 25 minutes in the US with what is known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) – symptoms stemming from a mother's opiate use. That amounted to about 22,000 infants a year, more than five times what it was in 2000."

One of the key provisions of the bill just passed by the House is to require help for both the newborn and its mother and family. This aims to ameliorate concerns on the part of health-care workers that sometimes prevent them from reporting cases of newborn addiction – fears that the mothers may be punished if officials learn of the situation.

"This important step with this bill is to ensure that the whole family is healthy and successful and supported," said Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the leading Democratic co-sponsor.

Some children's advocates, such as John Sciamanna of the Child Welfare League of America, see the effort as "a good first step" but are also keen that legislators "make it real and put some money in it."

The bill, officially the Improving Safe Care for the Prevention of Infant Abuse and Neglect Act, passed unanimously, 421 to 0.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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