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Painkiller-Addicted Babies In State Pose Painful, Costly Problem

As a growing number of newborns are being born addicted to narcotic painkillers, Texas lawmakers are considering measures to combat the costly problem.

Texas documented 1,009 Medicaid-covered babies born in 2013 suffering from sudden withdrawal from prescription opioids, called neonatal abstinence syndrome, The Austin American-Statesman reported an 18 percent increase since 2011.

Taxpayers spend tens of millions of dollars each year on hospitalizations for babies born with the syndrome because many of those births were covered by Medicaid, the federal-state program for needy, disabled and poor pregnant women and children. On average, those births tend to cost 10 times what other Medicaid births cost.

The state doesn't track the number of babies with the syndrome who aren't covered by Medicaid nor require health care providers to screen pregnant women for prescription drug abuse or consult a statewide database to track prescriptions. Experts say those are some of the steps that would not only establish the scope of the problem but also help get it under control.

Reports this session by two legislative committees ask lawmakers to focus attention on preventing the syndrome by reaching out to pregnant women and educating them, as well as expanding treatment programs. And the Texas Department of State Health Services is asking legislators to spend $7.7 million in the upcoming budget year and $9.3 million the following year for outreach, screening women for opioid use and treatment.

Some pregnant women are on pain prescriptions legitimately and aren't aware of the potential peril, said Dr. Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Others are in supervised programs to wean them off of prescription drugs. He said smaller percentages use illegal drugs or doctor-shop for access to opioid drugs.

"Quite a significant number of women are being treated for pain and are not put on contraceptives — and obstetricians are unaware of their pain treatment," he said.