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Pa. agency reports dramatic increase of newborns exposed to opioids before birth

Drug withdrawal in newborns increased more than 1,000 percent over the past 17 years, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council.

The independent state agency said in a report Wednesday that babies diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, tend to be born premature, have a low birth weight, have trouble feeding and suffer from respiratory problems. NAS takes place when the baby is exposed to addictive drugs, like opioids, in the mother’s womb.

Dr. Mark Caine, head of obstetrics at Allegheny Health Network, said NAS is a recent phenomenon because opioid abuse was not an issue a decade ago.

“What’s happening reflects the trends of the country,” Caine said.

The council said there were 1,912 NAS-related newborn hospital stays in Pennsylvania last year. NAS was diagnosed in 58 percent of the babies, the report said.

In Allegheny County, for every 1,000 newborn hospital stays in 2016-17, NAS was diagnosed 15.6 percent of the time. In Westmoreland County, the rate was 24.7 percent; Washington County, 19.6 percent; and Butler County, 19.3 percent.

The average hospital length of stay of NAS newborns was 17.1 days, compared with 3.5 days for other newborn stays, a difference of 26,018 days. It added $14.1 million in hospital payments last year.

“This brief provides more examples of the alarming impact the opioid crisis has had on Pennsylvania families and, specific to these findings, babies,” Joe Martin, PHC4’s executive director, said in a statement.

The council said NAS-related stays were highest among white, non-Hispanic newborns.

The agency’s findings gibe with what Caine sees in his practice.

“Generally caucasian, non-Hispanic and not black,” he said. “A lot of the mothers are middle class and are between the ages of 20 to 35. This reflects the worsening (opioid) crisis.”

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