Pregnant women in northern Minnesota who are addicted to drugs or alcohol will get more medical support, thanks to a $1.6 million grant announced Wednesday at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.
The grant will pay for a collaborative drug education and screening program for at-risk mothers in Beltrami County and the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Jim Przybilla, CEO of PrimeWest Health, the health plan provider funding the grant, said substance abuse among expectant mothers is a particular problem in and around Beltrami County.
"We serve people in 13 counties all across Minnesota," he said, "and this region struggles by far the most with prenatal substance abuse."
Przybilla's company insures roughly 9,000 people in the area. Of those, he said, 2,000 are women of childbearing age and 500 of them are at risk of using drugs or alcohol while pregnant.
Children whose mothers use drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can develop cognitive and health problems. It's a chronic danger in Beltrami County and the three nearby Indian reservations.
Substance abuse by pregnant women is a hard issue to quantify, but Sanford records suggest it's getting worse.
In 2010, nearly 3 percent of mothers delivering at Sanford tested positive for drugs the day of their child's birth. In 2013, that number more than doubled to more than 6.5 percent. According to Sanford case manager Katherine Houchins, 2014 is on track to see another increase.
The Sanford data comes from roughly 1,000 yearly births at the firm's Bemidji clinic, and doesn't count children born at other facilities. The numbers don't distinguish between illegal drugs and legal drugs taken without prescription.
Drugs taken early in a pregnancy won't show up in a test at delivery, so some prenatal drug use goes undetected, and it's the same story with alcohol. Houchins said the actual numbers of local children exposed to drug and alcohol abuse while in the womb is likely higher than 6.5 percent.
"Probably much higher, but exact numbers are hard to get," she said.
At Red Lake, former Family and Children's Services director Paula Woods said one or two children are born every month with health problems caused by their parents' drug use. Beyond that, she couldn't estimate the size of the problem.
The grant will fund a three-year education and prevention program, including salaries for three caseworkers, one each for Sanford, Beltrami County and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. The goal is to reach at-risk mothers early in their pregnancies in hope of limiting the effects of drugs on their children, or stopping drug use altogether.
"I think over the years this project will have a lifetime impact on children yet unborn," Przybilla said.