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ALBANY — Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Monticello, is pushing again for passage of twice-stalled legislation to create four infant recovery centers for babies experiencing drug withdrawal.

A.8203 was introduced again recently in the Assembly. It would add a new section in the state Public Health Law directing the state Health Department to establish a pilot program of infant recovery centers for infants experiencing drug withdrawal symptoms. The pilot program would last four years and require a report to the state Legislature so legislators can evaluate the program.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome has been a noted problem in Chautauqua County since a community health assessment in 2014, when the county averaged almost four times the state average of mothers testing positive during toxicology screenings before giving birth. Technically, babies cannot be classified as addicted because the term is defined by a person that seeks out and continues to use drugs regardless of the negative impacts. Because newborns are relying on care from hospital staff, they are not considered to be addicted. Despite the terminology, babies are still born with addiction symptoms.

"One aspect of the nation's opioid abuse is, the number of babies born with severe withdrawal symptoms," Gunther wrote in her legislative justification. "Hospitals are scrambling to find ways to care for the burgeoning population of drug addicted newborns. The result is symptoms consistent with withdrawal, acute toxicity or sustained signs consistent with a lasting drug effect. This is known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). These babies require specialized care and are often treated in new born intensive care units with an estimated cost of $66,700 per infant. Hospital diversion programs for these infants can provide less costly and more focused care for newborns and their parents."

Legislation establishing the infant recovery centers has unanimously passed the state Senate in 2019 and 2020, with state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, among the senators voting for the bill in 2020. The Senate legislation has been sponsored by Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx and Senate Health Committee chairman.

Rivera and Gunther envision the infant recovery centers to be akin to Lily's Place in Huntington, W.V., an infant recovery center located outside of the hospital where newborns can be taken as soon as it is safe for them to leave the hospital. Babies impacted by NAS can show signs of withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, diarrhea, fever, irritability, seizure, sneezing, excessive crying, twitching and difficulty breathing and feeding. Stanford Children's Health warns that NAS could result in poor intrauterine growth, premature birth and possible birth defects. Symptoms often are not observed until 48 to 72 hours after birth when the newborn is already sent home with the family.

"Lily's Place, staffed by the same doctor and team of nurses who treat drug exposed babies in those hospital, plus a social worker and administrative staff, is a transitional care center where parents can visit their babies throughout the day and occasionally stay overnight before taking them home," Gunther wrote. "Lily's Place has become a model for communities in the rest of the country that are experiencing the same kind of growth in drug exposed newborns as Huntington. The cost of caring for a drug exposed newborn in a hospital is nearly 20 times the cost of hospital care for a healthy infant, whereas the cost of caring for newborns at Lily's Place is one-fifth the daily rate of a hospital intensive care unit."

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