The Daily Reflector
In a rare breath of good news, the governor’s office announced last week that North Carolina’s infant mortality rate in 2010 was the lowest in the state’s history. Fewer families endured the indescribable pain of losing a young child, a significant accomplishment for a state with a very poor track record preventing infant deaths. Unfortunately, the budget passed by state legislators last summer will likely undermine progress, particularly for eastern North Carolina and African-American families.
In 1988, North Carolina had the worst infant mortality rate in the country. Prodded by the shame of such a distinction, Republican Gov. Jim Martin and the Democratic state Legislature teamed up to implement a variety of public health programs to improve health outcomes for pregnant women and young children.
North Carolina’s infant mortality rate is now much closer to the middle of the pack in relation to the other 49 states.
The news, however, is not all good. African-American infants are still more than twice as likely to die as white babies, and eastern North Carolina counties suffer from disproportionately high mortality rates. This disparity will likely be exacerbated by the recent decisions of state legislators, who cut not only specific infant mortality prevention programs, but also broader health services for women and children.
Of specific importance to Greenville is the East Carolina University High-Risk Clinic, which serves as a regional hub for the treatment and support of high-risk pregnancies. In 2011, the Legislature chose not to renew the grant for the clinic.The elimination of state funding has led to the closure of two outreach clinics, the loss of key staff including the head nurse, and the doubling of wait times for patients. Since the success of prenatal services depends on providing the right care, at the right time and at the right place, these reductions in capacity and services will have a detrimental impact on infant mortality in the eastern part of the state.
Furthermore, the decision to cut the ECU High-Risk Clinic was penny-wise and pound-foolish. Just one pre-term birth is more expensive than the entire state allocation for the clinic, which was $325,000, a relatively small amount in a $19.7 billion budget. The cost of these preventable pre-term births will largely be shifted to the state’s Medicaid program, which was cut more than $350 million.
The Legislature’s budget decisions become even more troubling when the problem of infant mortality is viewed with an appropriately broad lens. After all, the infant mortality rate is a broad indicator of women’s and children’s health across the state.
In addition to prior pre-term births, diabetes and pre-existing health conditions are some of the major factors that lead to a high infant mortality rate. That’s why deep cuts to our state’s Medicaid program and the elimination of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund will have such a substantial impact on the infant mortality rate, especially in eastern North Carolina where rates of diabetes and obesity are already high.
We can do better. Gov. Martin, a Republican, and the Democratic legislature of 1988 showed that the two political parties can come together and prioritize the health and safety of North Carolina’s children. With the legislature back in session this week and again after Thanksgiving, it’s a perfect time for North Carolina’s current crop of elected officials to follow their example, put children first and fully fund the ECU High-Risk Clinic.
Rob Thompson is executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, a coalition advocating policy that benefits children and families in North Carolina.