Guest Column

Babies, families need your help

guest column by Jeff Hollingsworth
Babies and families need your help. The health of newborns throughout Washington is taking a back seat because of a short-sighted focus on economics.
   Specifically, we are moving toward earlier and earlier discharge of mothers and newborns from hospitals based on inflexible discharge timelines and without needed follow-up services.
   Hospitals and health care providers are under increasing pressure to cut costs, as we all know, but this is the wrong way to do it.
   Nothing is more important than healthy babies--for them, for their families, for all of us.
   Organizations like the March of Dimes, which is committed to preventing birth defects and reducing infant mortality, are working to educate our elected officials about the crucial need to put healthy birth outcomes ahead of short-term cost savings.
   And also to explain that we could come out better economically in the long run if we assure adequate post-birth services, because prevention is a lot cheaper than cure. (Over the past five years in King County alone, an average of 22,703 babies have been born each year.)
   No one can set a magic universal rule for the minimum safe hospital stay following birth. We do know, however, that there are significant milestones newborns and mothers must pass in the first three days of life: jaundice, bleeding, dehydration, establishment of breast feeding, and others.
   Some conditions affecting newborns are life-threatening and do not necessarily become apparent in the first 24 hours after birth.
   So inflexible discharge rules that force mothers and children out of the hospital in less than even a day are a bad idea.
   The point is that we need to focus not on early discharge but on appropriate discharge. We need to ensure the health of mothers and babies by focusing on safe standards--not just on length of stay.
   The key is to be flexible and to consider a variety of solutions, with the health of mothers and babies as our fundamental concern.
   For example, in a rural environment, where discharge will put babies far from the hospital, a longer stay or a home visit program may be the answer. In an urban environment, a postpartum clinic might best address babies' needs.
   Legislators are attempting to address these concerns. Bills on postpartum insurance coverage are being introduced in the 1996 legislative session in Olympia.
   At the national level, Senators Bill Bradley and Nancy Kassebaum are the bipartisan sponsors of similar legislation. Providers are looking at solutions. All these efforts are important.
   Our elected officials need our help to make the right decisions. I hope you will contact your legislators and tell them you support action to protect the health of mothers and newborns by obtaining the services they need after birth. Or call the March of Dimes in Seattle at 1-800-291-DIME if you'd like more information about what you can do to make yourself heard.
   Let's make "I'll speak for babies" a splendid News Year's resolution.
   Jeff Hollingsworth, a partner at the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, is chair of the Western Washington Chapter of the March of Dimes.