Babies born to addicted mothers are filling neonatal intensive care units in Tennessee faster than the health care system can figure out how to treat them. The Tennessean reports. In the past decade, the number of babies in withdrawal has increased tenfold. Last year, 921 drug-dependent babies were born in the state. The average cost to deliver a drug-dependent baby is $62,000, compared with $4,700 for a healthy child. Taxpayers bear the brunt of this cost. Most of these babies and their mothers are on TennCare, the state health insurance for the poor.
When newborn babies begin to withdraw from powerful drugs, they shriek at a high, telltale pitch. Cut off from the substances ingested through their mothers, they convulse, projectile vomit or writhe from skin-scorching diarrhea. The debate over how to deal with the problem has consumed Tennessee doctors, researchers and politicians, and has led them to wildly different conclusions. Drug-dependent babies are heart-wrenching and expensive to care for. State laws are contradictory. Beginning this summer, two laws will be in effect at the same time. One encourages treatment and protects parental rights; the other threatens jail time for addicted mothers. Together, they leave doctors unsure what to tell their patients.