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Congressman Evan Jenkins

Representing the 3rd District of West Virginia

Rep. Jenkins: Newborns are youngest victims of drug crisis

October 31, 2015
Columns

Going through withdrawal from heroin and other opioids is a horrific way to start one's life, but that's the reality for far too many newborns in West Virginia.

Our state has seen a spike in the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome - withdrawal due to the mother's use of drugs like opioids during pregnancy. If we are to successfully curb the drug epidemic in West Virginia, we must address the specific needs of the most vulnerable in our society - newborns - and ensure they have a chance at a happy, healthy life.

The number of babies born drug exposed has more than quadrupled nationwide in the past few years, and in West Virginia alone, estimates show that 7 percent of babies born yearly were exposed to narcotics in the womb. Drug exposure during pregnancy results in great suffering for babies going through withdrawal, including irritability, stiffness, difficulty feeding, difficulty breathing, vomiting and even seizures.

Many of us expect newborns to be home with their families within a few days after birth, but babies with NAS often stay in the hospital for days, even weeks, longer than healthy newborns. These babies are often kept in the neonatal intensive care unit, where they spend time going through withdrawal instead of enjoying their first weeks of life at home. During their stay, these babies require specialized care that not only includes medical treatment but also swaddling and rocking in a low-light, lownoise environment.

As I travel the Third Congressional District, I've held roundtables and meetings with nurses and physicians, seeing firsthand their struggles and dedication to helping every baby heal. These compassionate healthcare professionals are working to provide innovative medical care to ease the stress on the newborns while communities are coming together to help the mothers and families.

This is not just a secluded problem in a few towns in West Virginia; it is a nationwide epidemic, impacting rural, urban and suburban communities. While the situation sounds dire, there is hope.

Before coming to Congress, I helped to start Lily's Place in Huntington. Lily's Place is one of the first standalone residential pediatric recovery centers in the country and provides the specialized care newborns with NAS need. Lily's Place also offers another critical element, counseling and assistance to mothers, helping to ensure they are on the path to becoming healthy parents for their babies.

Since being elected to Congress, I've worked to find solutions to this heartbreaking problem. That's why I am proud to introduce the Cradle Act, which eases some of the federal regulatory hurdles and sets clear guidelines for more facilities like Lily's Place to open. Caregivers should not have to jump through every regulatory hoop in order to provide care to these newborns.

I know firsthand the struggles that Lily's Place has faced in getting up and running; even with those struggles, this type of residential pediatric recovery center is already being replicated near Dayton, Ohio. As a result, I am working in Congress to ease some of the regulatory burden and uncertainty. Making strides toward solving this problem is something I am passionate about and will fight for every day in Washington.

I have also cosponsored and supported passage of the Protecting Our Infants Act, which aims to better understand and develop best practice for caring for NAS newborns. Caregivers and facilities like Lily's Place that are making advances in care need to be studied and replicated. A study by the Government Accountability Office highlighted the need for further research and also the need for improved treatment for NAS, and the Protecting Our Infants Act will help fill that gap. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., introduced the Protecting Our Infants Act, and I appreciate her signing on as the lead Democrat on my bill.

Finding solutions to treating neonatal abstinence syndrome is only one piece of a larger problem: the drug epidemic ravaging our communities. We must work together to stop drug trafficking in our communities, ensure drug dealers face justice, help those with substance abuse problems get the treatment they need, and work with expectant mothers to create the best outcomes for their unborn children.

This is a difficult problem that requires a number of different people working together, from law enforcement to our medical community, to social workers and community advocates.