The infants are born addicted. They struggle to live. They cry constantly as they go through the same withdrawal symptoms as an adult, wanting more of the drug that had become their food the past nine months.
The opioid crisis impacts much more than the drug user. For the pregnant women addicted to these drugs the baby becomes addicted. When they are born, the crisis continues for days, even months, as they are treated for drug dependency. They need to be cared for 24 hours a day, except for the brief time they may fall asleep.
But in recovery, these babies need help once they can leave hospitals, usually in less than 20 days, but often times the mother, because of her addiction, can’t leave or isn’t capable of caring for the child. The babies need to be fed properly and cared for properly. Their mothers, in many cases still fighting substance abuse, aren’t capable of caring for them. Florida’s Department of Children and Families can assist, but it is overwhelmed. There are not enough foster families to take these babies.
Florida Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has a possible solution and one we believe can make a difference. She has introduced legislation that will create a pilot program, allowing private, non-profit organizations to establish facilities that can provide 24-hour care for these infants once they can leave intensive care units. She wants proper background checks before licenses are issued but reduced fees to make it affordable, and minimum requirements for organizations to create these facilities. She wants facilities that take Medicaid patients so low income women and their babies can get care.
These facilities will be accountable for following state law among their personnel and within the facility. Passidomo said motivation for the bill was provided by a Naples attorney, who has been volunteering at a local hospital, caring for these sick infants. The attorney has helped form a non-profit specifically for caring for opioid babies if this legislation is passed and the organization applies for and gets licensed.
An important component to the pilot program is not only the treatment of these sick infants, but also measuring the results. She wants the department of health to step up and contract with a state university or college to provide baseline data on outcomes of the care and treatment. She wants the department of health to report back to the Legislature by specified dates on how programs are functioning. The study also will go well beyond what happens at the facilities. Critical to this data will be plans to track these drug dependent babies throughout childhood on how well they are doing in school and if they also face any drug addictions.
We encourage Florida Gulf Coast University or Florida SouthWestern State College to take a serious look at the this program and how it can help. Medical students could benefit from the training and experience of working with individuals involved in the program and with infants.
We are also encouraged that this program goes well beyond the treatment of the infant. It provides for the mother, once she is successfully treated, to be a resident at the facility and to be able to feed her child. The program provides for parenting education, breastfeeding education and counseling, as well as other resources. It provides for mandatory testing of the mother’s breast milk to make sure she is still not using drugs that in any way can harm the baby. If the mother refuses, the mother will be told to leave. The bill also mandates a facility cannot treat an infant for longer than six months.
It’s also encouraging this program will not require taxpayer support, other than what is provided through Medicaid. Any organization that applies to be part of the program and to open a facility must do it through grants or other private donations.
We are in an opioid crisis. People are overdosing and dying in record numbers. The number of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (opioid dependent) babies born at or transferred into Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida has increased from 1.2 per every 1,000 live births in 2007 to 14.9 in 2016.
This is a big ask of any non-profit to take on such a tremendous responsibility, but it is an ask that must be made. These babies suffer enormously in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and at hospitals across the country. This problem is not easing. It is only getting worse.
Passidomo’s bill offers some hope to this crisis, not only through the treatment of these babies, but also the education and hopefully the prevention of further drug dependency by the mother.
We strongly encourage the Legislature to dissect the bill, ask the necessary questions, many any changes that improve the substance of the program, but in the end measure the worth of treating these babies, to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.