Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: A Public Health Reporting Gap : Shots - Health News Getting good information is critical to figuring out where resources need to go to treat newborns dependent on opioids. Pennsylvania relies on old and incomplete statistics, but that may be changing.
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A Crisis With Scant Data: States Move To Count Drug-Dependent Babies

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A Crisis With Scant Data: States Move To Count Drug-Dependent Babies

A Crisis With Scant Data: States Move To Count Drug-Dependent Babies

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Data in many states suggests that more babies are being born to mothers dependent on opioids. But that data is often incomplete or old. As part of our series The Opioid Epidemic's Tinniest Patients, we're going now to Pennsylvania where health officials are trying to grasp the full scope of this problem. Here's reporter Ben Allen from WITF in Harrisburg.

BEN ALLEN, BYLINE: There is some information.

TED DALLAS: You can see the numbers of births going down but the number of births that are substance-exposed going up.

ALLEN: That's Secretary Ted Dallas, head of Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services, walking me through a chart that shows only some of the infants born dependent on opioids.

DALLAS: Data's never pristine when you're dealing with 2.7 million people. Do I think it gives you a good picture of the issues that are out there - yes.

ALLEN: But it's just a slice of Pennsylvania's nearly 13 million people. Dallas says his statistics are two years old and only deal with babies who are covered by Medicaid, the government's health insurance for the poor and disabled.

DALLAS: We can say with reasonable amount of clarity in Medicaid. Across the commonwealth of folks not in Medicaid, I don't think we can say that right now.

ALLEN: Between 2013 and 2014, about 3,700 babies on Medicaid in Pennsylvania were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. He says with better data, the state would be able to devote more resources to fighting the growing issue. They'd better coordinate care so the babies and families are getting the treatment they need because there is an upside here.

Babies with NAS usually do recover. Dr. David Wolf works in the neonatal intensive care unit in Pinnacle Health's Harrisburg Hospital.

DAVID WOLF: These babies are very work-intensive. Our nurses - they're on the front lines, and they have to deal with the minute-to-minute, sometimes, symptoms.

ALLEN: Wolf says cuddling or rocking the babies nearly nonstop is key along with adjusting medication doses frequently in the first 48 hours as doctors wean these newborns off opioids. Stays in the NICU often stretch past two or three weeks, and the babies need follow-up visits, too.

Pennsylvania might look to Tennessee. Dr. Michael Warren with Tennessee's Department of Health says that state reacted quickly when doctors started seeing a lot more neonatal abstinence syndrome cases in 2012.

MICHAEL WARREN: We were hearing from hospitals across the state that they were really, really full and, to use their words, in some cases, bursting at the seams.

ALLEN: Warren says it's now mandatory for doctors in hospitals to report NAS cases within 30 days, and Tennessee made it simple.

WARREN: So if you've ordered from Amazon or an online service, you can navigate this system with ease. And at the end of it, you click submit, and that case is reported to us at the Department of Health.

ALLEN: Tennessee's health department has been able to shift its efforts based on what's coming into the data system, and Warren says it's shattered some stereotypes in the process.

WARREN: Sometimes there's the tendency to say, these are just those moms who are using illicit drugs or buying those drugs on the streets. But what this surveillance system has actually allowed us to see is that in the majority of our cases, mom is getting at least one substance that is prescribed to her by a health care provider.

ALLEN: As a result, Tennessee alerted doctors to the issue, recommending they try to change their prescription habits and get pregnant patients other options besides opioids. That was only possible because of good data. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas knows the state is missing out.

DALLAS: When you're faced with the growing numbers we have here, we have to make the decision based on the best data we have. If we had better data, we could make better decisions.

ALLEN: Just as I was wrapping up this story, the state called me. Pennsylvania will start collecting data about babies born dependent on opioids in July. For NPR News, I'm Ben Allen in Harrisburg.

MCEVERS: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WITF's Transforming Health team and Kaiser Health News.

Now for the latest on a shooting near the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. The chief of U.S. Capitol Police, Matthew Verderosa, has given a press conference. He told reporters the shooting occurred in the Capitol Visitor Center. During a routine security screening, a man pulled out what appeared to be a weapon. That's when police opened fire. The man was arrested, taken to a hospital. He is now undergoing surgery.

One bystander was injured, but Verderosa described the injuries as minor. He says no police officer was hurt contrary to earlier reports. Verderosa says there's no reason to believe the incident was anything more than a single criminal act, and he expects regular order of business to resume tomorrow.

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