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Montana Tackles Growing Number Of Pregnant Women With Substance Abuse Issues

Chelsea Stirlen / Flickr

The number of babies in Montana who are exposed to drugs before they’re born is growing rapidly. The percentage tripled for moms on Medicaid between 2010 and 2016, from four to 12 percent.       

Billings Clinic neonatologist Jeff Cooper said many of the women with newborns they see at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unite (NICU) are “known moms,” who have already lost custody of other children.

“We see anything from the range from a mom who expresses remorse and really wants to work with child and family services to do what’s necessary to get their child back to the other extreme,” said Cooper. “We’ve seen babies that have come to our unit from the region where the mom basically has expressed allowing the foster parent to name their child.”

Cooper said methamphetamine is one of the most common substances seen among mothers.

He said meth often goes hand-in-hand with marijuana, and they tend to see about three admissions monthly of mothers who struggle with substance abuse. Cooper said that number has slowly increased over the last 10 years, and for the babies, the consequences of that can start at birth.

“In addition to having withdrawal from illegal drugs like methamphetamine and being born premature, as they get older and start to enter school we’ve noticed behavioral problem, emotional problems, neurocognitive or school-related disabilities and issues too,” he said. “And that’s a big problem.”

Cooper said it’s important to provide services to pregnant women who struggle with addiction and intervene early. That kind of treatment isn’t widely available yet in the state.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is trying to change that with its Perinatal Behavioral Health Initiative.

Senior program officer Tressie White with the Montana Healthcare Foundation, one of the funders, said they’ll be expanding the program to multiple locations and organizations as they apply.

“The idea is that every woman when they come in for care will be screened for both mental health and substance use,” said White. “Each site will be developing their own protocol, but generally will be happening a number of times throughout the pregnancy and then after the birth at the follow-up appointment.”

In November, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and the Healthcare Foundation announced that roughly $5 million federal and private funds will be directed to the project.

Health care organizations can apply to get involved until the end of January.