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Reducing early deliveries in Louisiana: An editorial

Louisiana has a dismal track record when it comes to the health of its youngest residents: the state ranks 49th for infant mortality, pre-term births, and low and very low birth weight babies, according to the National Center of Health Statistics.

It’s important to improve that ranking, and that’s why the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has launched what it calls the 39-Week Initiative. The program, the first of its kind, encourages hospitals to stop elective early deliveries — before the 39th week of pregnancy — that is not medically necessary.

That makes sense. There’s a real downside to delivering babies even a few weeks early. Babies’ organs, including their brains and lungs, continue to develop even in the last weeks of pregnancy, DHH points out. Premature babies are more likely to have complications such as breathing issues that will require them to spend time in intensive care.

Two hospitals, East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie and Women’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, implemented the program before DHH launched it statewide. Both saw admissions to their neonatal intensive care units decline by 20 percent.

Now, more hospitals are implementing the program, including Ochsner, Tulane-Lakeside Hospital, Touro Infirmary, West Jefferson Medical Center, and Lakeview Hospital .

Louisiana officials took this step after getting an “F” on the March of Dimes annual report card last November. While DHH officials haven’t released figures showing how many elective pre-term births there are, DHH Secretary Bruce Greenstein said that he was “genuinely shocked” at the number that was not medically necessary.

“Too many doctors and too many women just don’t fully understand the risks, even in a healthy pregnancy,” he said.

Reducing the number of premature births that can be avoided is obviously better for newborns and their families. But state officials expect taxpayers to benefit, too. Medicaid paid for about 70 percent of the total births in Louisiana last year, including 7,000 premature births. The cost of their care exceeded $200 million.

Reducing the number of pre-term births, whether the mothers have private insurance or Medicare, will mean healthier newborns. And that will make Louisiana a healthier state.