U.S. agency pushes reforms to protect drug-dependent babies

Clorissa Jones plays with her six-month-old son Braxton at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Health and Human Services Department is revamping its policies to help protect thousands of babies born dependent on drugs, a reform triggered by a Reuters investigative report, the agency’s leader told a congressional committee on Tuesday.

“Specific actions are being taken where we have found there is wrongdoing,” Secretary Sylvia Burwell told the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee. Burwell did not offer a detailed plan but pledged to “take a more pro-active approach” to enforce a 2003 federal law requiring states to report and protect drug-affected newborns.

The Reuters investigation identified 110 examples of children who were exposed to opoids while in the womb and later died after leaving the hospital. No more than nine states comply with a 2003 law that calls on hospitals to alert social workers whenever such a baby is born and to help mother and child develop a “safe care” plan, the news agency found.

Since the law was enacted, the number of newborns diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome has skyrocketed, to 27,315 cases in 2013 from 4,991 in 2003, federal data shows. Thousands were sent home each year without a referral to social service agencies, the Reuters analysis found.

Burwell said the stories triggered a review of several states and that South Carolina, in particular, was being placed on a “performance improvement plan.” A spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Social Services had no immediate comment.

The secretary’s remarks on Tuesday came in response to questions from the committee’s chairman, Representative John Kline, who opened an inquiry into the matter. Previously, Burwell and aides had declined the news agency’s interview requests.

In opening remarks, Kline, a Minnesota Republican, said Reuters “revealed the shocking and deadly consequences of this neglect and cast serious doubts as to whether basic requirements of the law are being met and enforced.”

“It’s clear that the current system is failing some of our country’s most vulnerable children,” Kline said.

After quizzing Burwell on the problem, the chairman said he welcomed her promised reforms. “We will be watching with interest,” Kline said.

Reporting by John Shiffman in Washington and Duff Wilson in New York; Editing by Ronnie Greene and Steve Orlofsky