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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Governor’s focus on decreasing infant mortality in Indiana is encouraging

While Indiana’s 2018 decrease in its infant mortality rate was the biggest in six years, the news isn’t quite as good as it sounds.

Newly released data from the Indiana Department of Health show the infant mortality rate in 2018 dropped from 7.3 the previous year to 6.8 per 1,000 babies born alive and less than 1 year old. In real numbers, that means 559 infants died that year, compared to 602 in 2017. And while the drop in numbers is good, what’s bad is the fact that Indiana has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the nation.

According to America’s Health Rankings, Massachusetts has the lowest infant mortality rate at 3.8 per 1,000, while Mississippi has the highest at 8.6. Indiana’s 6.8 is tied at 43rd worst in the country with Georgia and Tennessee — only five states are worse.

That’s why News-Sentinel.com was glad to hear Gov. Eric Holcomb show his determination in his State of the State Address last week to keep the problem high on his list of priorities this year. He has set his sights on getting Indiana to the lowest infant mortality rate in the Midwest by 2024. Illinois was 31st in the country at 6.2 deaths per 1,000 in 2018, while Wisconsin was 33rd at 6.4, Michigan and Kentucky were tied at 36th at 6.6 and Ohio was 41st at 7.3 — all better than Indiana.

Following last year’s legislative session in April, Holcomb signed House Enrolled Act 1007, which pairs women covered by Medicaid in high-risk ZIP codes with a health care worker to help coordinate their care during and immediately after pregnancy. It also requires health care providers to verbally screen all pregnant women for substance abuse.

“There are few — if any — things more important than protecting Hoosier babies and improving the lives and health of their mothers,” Holcomb said in a statement after signing the bill, “… and today we’re putting new tools in place to make sure more babies reach their first birthdays and more moms get connected to the treatment they need.”

In his speech last week, the governor said the new steps to fix the problem are making a difference.

“Our infant mortality rate decreased significantly from 2017 to 2018 and is at its lowest since 2012,” he told lawmakers at the Statehouse. “Moreover, the OB Navigator program you approved last year is up and running in Allen County and is set to go live in 19 more counties by the end of this year.”

The OB navigator program provides personal, at-home support for women living in the 20 counties with the highest infant mortality rate, including Allen County. The program follows mother and baby for six months to a year after birth. The intent is that the program will not only save babies’ lives, but the mothers as well.

Currently, the state’s maternal mortality rate is 50 deaths per 100,000 live births, which is 48th in the country, according to America’s Health Rankings.

Indiana State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box wants to address the high rates of both infant and maternal mortality through a pregnancy accommodations bill in the Indiana General Assembly during the current short session. She says the bill would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers who are pregnant so they may keep working if possible.

Another initiative was launched in Allen County last year following more than a year of research. Footprints Fort Wayne reported the primary cause of infant death in Allen County is premature birth and last year initiated action in three primary focus areas: encouraging safe sleep practices, promoting early and regular prenatal care and eliminating the racial disparity associated with infant mortality. The report said African American babies are more than twice as likely to die than those of other races.

However, Indiana State Department of Health data show the black infant mortality rate declined nearly 16 percent in 2018, and the rate for Hispanics fell almost 20 percent.

“Quite honestly, this is a culmination of a number of years of very intensive efforts from multiple state agencies and Gov. Eric Holcomb,” Box told the Indianapolis Star in response to the latest data reported this week. “I celebrate those babies that were saved, but we still have a long way to go.”