Premature Birth: An American Crisis

Brian Shipp

Premature Birth: An American Crisis

Brian Shipp is the CEO of the Southeast region of AMERIGROUP Corporation, which provides healthcare coverage to approximately 187,000 people enrolled in TennCare
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Every baby deserves a healthy start in life – it's a truism with which no one could argue. Sadly, no one could argue that it's a true description of life in Tennessee.

Every year, more than 500,000 premature babies are born in America. This quiet epidemic inflicts enormous suffering on the most vulnerable among us. Premature babies often start life fighting for survival in hospital intensive care units. Studies show that many have serious illnesses throughout childhood, causing them not only to suffer physically but to miss school and fall behind academically. Premature birth is the source of immeasurable anguish for families and billions of dollars in healthcare costs, much of which we all pay through publicly funded healthcare programs like Medicaid.

The causes of premature birth have been studied extensively and programs that are proven to reduce the incidence of premature birth exist. Yet our national public health track record in regard to premature birth is dismal.

The March of Dimes recently released its first "Premature Birth Report Card" for America and the results were stark. Tennessee ranked 45th in the nation with a premature birth rate of 14.7 percent, nearly double the nation's objective of 7.6 percent. Our overall grade was an "F."

At the company where I work, we see the human consequences of premature birth every day. We serve more than 187,000 TennCare members in Middle Tennessee and each year we cover more than 6,000 births in this state.

We've learned from experience that it's possible to reduce the rate of premature births. No one has to invent a miracle drug or perform complex surgery. We have to identify pregnant women and connect them with the right prenatal care as soon as possible. This requires day-to-day, person-to-person outreach that is comparatively simple, but that much of our healthcare system is not built to carry out.

The results of efforts like this can be dramatic. All the members we serve are financially vulnerable and many are African American, Hispanic or other minorities – all groups that suffer an especially high rate of premature birth. Overall, our nation's premature birth rate is 12.8 percent; among African Americans, it's almost 50 percent higher. Yet the mothers covered by our company have a premature birth rate of 9.6 percent – considerably less than the national rate and almost half the rate among African Americans.

This is progress, but it isn't good enough. America can do better – much better – in addressing the issue of premature birth. President Barack Obama and Congress should expand Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to give all of America's children an equal chance at good health. We must connect every pregnant woman with the basic healthcare she needs to give birth to a full-term baby.

We have a moral obligation to give our children a healthy start. We must act now. Our children simply can't wait.