Local community and political leaders, along with representatives from the five Medicaid managed care plans, joined Ohio Medicaid Director John McCarthy Thursday afternoon to discuss ways to combat high infant mortality rates in Butler County and across the state.
The Journal-News reported in a three-part series last month that black babies in Butler County are dying before the age of 1 at twice the rate of white babies.
Before McCarthy took to the podium to address the crowded room at the Butler County Educational Center, that had nearly every available seat filled with those who are actively trying to find an answer to the high infant mortality rate, he addressed a few pressing questions.
“There isn’t going to be a one-size fits all solution, and in Ohio we are not seeing as much improvement with infant mortality rates as other states,” he said. “This is just like chasing Bigfoot.That is an interesting analogy, because you really can’t pinpoint one factor that is making the rates high and twice as high for African American babies.”
Once at the podium, McCarthy showed a map that revealed where the highest infant mortality rates are in Ohio. Butler County had two areas that were spotlighted.
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“That is why we are here, because two areas in Butler County (a north and east location) were identified, and we want to find out how to lower those rates,” he said.
Ohio Medicaid is proposing to help the state deal with the problem by aiding dialogue with some funding. For this fiscal year, McCarthy said the organization put in its budget $13.4 million to help communities across the state deal with high infant mortality rates.
“What we did was identify women of child bearing age in those zip codes (on the state map) and then identified how many health workers would be needed to serve those women, and we plugged in a salary and health benefits so those workers wouldn’t need to be on Medicaid, and we ran the formula and came up with $13.4 million and put that into our budget for this fiscal year,” he said.
Identifying some existing problems
Getting and keeping the word out in the community about the problem was at the top of the discussion from several health workers as the microphone was passed around during a question -and-answer session.
Prematurity issues, transportation to medical appointments, especially for low-income women, and inadequate resources and personnel used in the lowest socioeconomic areas are problems that need to be addressed.
McCarthy said engaging parents and family about the issue — creating an awareness — is something that needs to happen. He talked about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, saying, “We have raised awareness on this issue, but people don’t talk enough about prematurity.”
Race is an issue
The audience didn’t want to abandon the issue that black babies in Butler County are dying before the age of 1 at twice the rate of white babies, and that statistic is true around the state and across the country.
Some of the health workers said that they found African American women suffered from racism not just from medical providers, but from those who were working in the medical offices as support staff.
“There is disparate treatment,” one worker said.
Many in the audience agreed that getting people of faith on board with addressing infant mortality, including pastors and their congregations, will be an important part of solving the problem.
“You need to approach the ministers and faith leaders and have an open discussion about this problem and get them to understand that this problem is not going away and ignoring it won’t help,” one of the health leaders said.
Finding more certified community health workers to get out in the community to help mothers was deemed a priority. In Butler County, Laura Theiss is chair for smoking cessation in the county. Nearly 70 percent of low-income pregnant women smoke. Smoking has been linked to prematurity, birth defects, asthma, SIDS and other health issues, said Jennifer Bailer of the Butler County Health Department.
Drug and alcohol addiction were also cited as issues causing the infant mortality rates to rise.
McCarthy said he would be visiting other high-risk area codes around the state. Ohio Medicaid wants to see a detailed plan on what the leaders in these area codes want to enact to combat the problem. The end result of a well-detailed plan could lead to funding in order to execute it.
Butler County has up to three to four weeks to submit its plan, and McCarthy said that he and his team could be back in town by mid-March.