By Rob Thompson, Senior Policy and Communications Advisor
As a first-time parent, I wanted nothing more than for my son to get off to a strong start. When he was born six weeks early, my wife and I were scared about what it meant for his immediate and future health. While he’s thrived generally, he needed to stay in the the NICU for two weeks and has had ongoing respiratory issues in his first years of life. Other babies born prematurely aren’t so lucky–many experience life-threatening health challenges from the moment they are born; in fact, prematurity is one of the leading risk factors for infant mortality, accounting for 1 in 5 infant deaths in North Carolina.
For the second straight year, North Carolina’s rate of premature births has increased, according to the 2017 Premature Birth Report Card released by the March of Dimes last week. The rate now stands at 10.4 percent, which means that more than 1 out of every 10 babies is born at least 4 weeks before their due date. The Report Card also shows troubling racial disparities that correlate with disparities in North Carolina’s infant mortality rate. Specifically, the prematurity rate for African American women (13.5 percent) is 53 percent higher than the rate for all other women.
North Carolina has the ability to improve our prematurity rate (and our infant mortality rate) by expanding access to health insurance for women of childbearing age and other adults. While the causes of premature births remain murky, and sometimes premature births happen in the absence of risk factors, they have been linked to a variety of health conditions: diabetes, high blood pressure, poor nutrition, substance abuse, obesity, and inadequate recovery time between pregnancies. All of these conditions and behaviors can be more effectively addressed when a potential parent has access to health insurance.
Up to this point, North Carolina has failed to take advantage of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows states to utilize federal funding to expand health insurance for low-income, uninsured adults. According to a report published by NC Child last year, “more than half of all uninsured women of reproductive age (53 percent) earn too little to afford coverage in the marketplace.” Expanding health insurance, either through Medicaid or an alternative program, would provide women with the health insurance they need to address health conditions that contribute to prematurity.
Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) has introduced legislation that has bipartisan support that would expand health insurance for adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen supports this bill and has prioritized expanding health coverage in her tenure as secretary. Now it’s time for Rep. Lambeth’s colleagues to get on board with his proposal to protect the health of North Carolina’s babies.