Kalispell Regional Healthcare has seen a sharp decline in the number of newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition that occurs when a newborn is exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb.
Officials at the hospital say the decline is due in large part to a program headed up by the neonatal intensive care unit that helps expectant or new mothers who struggle with addiction connect with social workers and parenting classes.
Nationally, about six out of every 1,000 infants are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. But locally, the number was significantly higher before the recent decline, according to KRH officials.
Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 400 percent increase in neonatal intensive care unit admissions, mostly due to drugs. Last year, there were about two-dozen infants born at KRH with neonatal abstinence syndrome. This year, there have only been two infants suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome.
According to Mindy Fuzesy, a neonatal intensive care unit specialist, whenever the hospital finds a woman who is struggling with substance abuse who is about to have or has recently given birth, it connects them with social workers. The social workers and hospital staff talk to the mother about the program, which encourages positive parenting and offers parenting classes on everything from breastfeeding to bathing. Every time a mother attends one of the sessions, she gets a voucher for baby supplies. Families can participate until their child is 2 years old. The social workers also help the mothers get addiction counseling to stay clean.
The average stay in the neonatal intensive care unit is also on the decline, Fuzesy said. A few years ago, an infant usually stayed for upwards of 30 days, but now the average is 16 days. The cost of having an infant in the neonatal intensive care unit is staggering. While a healthy birth can cost about $5,000, an extended neonatal intensive care unit stay can cost up to $75,000.
In years past, many of the infants admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit would go into foster care right afterward, but thanks to the program, the number of children going home with their parents has increased significantly, officials said.
Fuzesy said the effort to help new mothers marks a significant change from how women struggling with addiction were treated in the past.
“We want to help these new mothers become parents, and to do that, we wrap them in services to help,” Fuzesy said. “These people really do want to be good parents — they love their children just like anyone else.”
The program is being funded in part by the Montana Healthcare Foundation.
On June 15, Gov. Steve Bullock visited KRH for a roundtable discussion about the program and its successes. He said KRH can be a blueprint for other hospitals.
“Substance abuse is a very complex issue in this state … but we’re pioneering new approaches here,” he said.