Senate advances bill to aid drug-dependent newborns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan bill designed to improve the health and safety of babies born to mothers who used heroin or other opioids during pregnancy was approved by a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday.

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The bill, which will now move to the Senate floor, was prompted by a Reuters investigation last year.

READ MORE: Helpless & Hooked: The infant victims of America's opioid epidemic

Reuters found 110 cases of children who were exposed to opioids while in the womb and who later died preventable deaths at home. No more than nine states comply with a 2003 law that calls on hospitals to alert social workers whenever a baby is born dependent on drugs, Reuters found.

“This is a major bipartisan agreement that will seek to fill the gaps in this program that Reuters first exposed in their groundbreaking investigation,” said Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a co-author of the bill. “These are our most vulnerable children and we have an abiding obligation to ensure they’re cared for.”

The proposal approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday calls for better “plans of safe care” to help drug-dependent mothers raise newborns as the babies suffer through opioid withdrawal.

If it becomes law, the measure would also require states to report each year the number of infants identified as born drug-dependent, and the number for whom plans of safe care are developed. Thousands of newborns do not receive such plans, Reuters found.

The proposal, which does not include additional funds, is part of a compromise struck between Casey and committee chairman Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican.

The bill also requires the Health and Human Services Department to better monitor state policies intended to protect drug-dependent newborns.

On Tuesday, also in response to the Reuters series, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said her agency had revamped its policies for protecting thousands of babies and planned to be “more pro-active.”

Burwell made her remarks in testimony before a U.S. House committee in which she said HHS was reviewing unspecified problems in South Carolina.

South Carolina officials this week confirmed they had been ordered by HHS on March 4 to improve their policies on drug-exposed newborns, but they did not provide details.

Reporting by John Shiffman in Washington, Duff Wilson in New York; Editing by Ronnie Greene, Toni Reinhold