Delivering early–for no medical cause–can harm babies.

By Emily Bazar, Center for Health Reporting

(Nathan LeClair: Flickr)
(Nathan LeClair: Flickr)

Now the feds are jumping in.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a national campaign to reduce elective deliveries of babies before 39 weeks of pregnancy, saying the effort will improve care and save millions.

Under the “Strong Start” initiative, the government will work with hospitals across the country that have joined the Partnership for Patients, a voluntary effort to reduce preventable injuries and complications.

It also will partner with organizations such as the March of Dimes and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which have taken strong stands against early elective births.

The federal government now joins a fast-growing movement to cut early elective births. As I wrote last week, nearly 100 hospitals across California have adopted policies to discourage or prohibit doctors from scheduling deliveries – either by inducing labor or performing cesarean sections – between weeks 37 and 39 of pregnancy without a medical reason.

Data show that delivering early without a valid medical reason increases the risk of complications to babies, including breathing and feeding problems and blood infections.

According to HHS, up to 10 percent of all deliveries are scheduled during weeks 37 and 38 without a medical reason.

“Preterm births are a growing public health problem that has significant consequences for families well into a child’s life,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

The cost-savings for reducing early elective births could be significant. Medicaid, the publicly funded health program for low-income people, pays for just less than half of the nation’s births each year. A 10 percent drop in deliveries before 39 weeks would lead to more than $75 million in annual Medicaid savings, HHS said.

HHS also announced a plan to distribute more than $40 million in grants to reduce preterm births before 37 weeks of gestation.

More than half a million preemies are born each year, HHS said, a number that has grown by 36 percent over the past two decades.

The grants will be awarded to providers and coalitions to improve prenatal care for women covered by Medicaid.

Author

Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED's State of Health blog. Since 2011, she's been writing stories and editing them for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco's CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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