A Funder Takes on the Devastating Problem of Perinatal Drug Use

photo: ChameleonsEye/shutterstock

photo: ChameleonsEye/shutterstock

Over the past year, a few health-focused funders have begun paying attention to the nationwide opioid crisis and are taking localized approaches to battle this epidemic. But what about drug addiction among expectant mothers? While this is a less talked-about issue that is on even fewer foundations’ radars, it’s a very serious one in certain parts of the country right now.

One of the many places were addiction during pregnancy is a growing problem is the state of Montana, and expecting moms currently have very few options to find help. It has been estimated that only about six percent of state-licensed substance use treatment programs in Montana serve women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. Meanwhile, a leading cause of children being removed from their homes and put into foster care is a parent’s substance use. Montana hospitals are seeing an increasing number of babies born with exposure harmful drugs in the womb as well.

Fortunately, there’s one prominent funder in the state that is paying attention to these startling statistics and doing something about it. This is the Montana Healthcare Foundation (MHF), which is a Bozeman-based health legacy funder that regularly supports public health, American Indian health, and behavioral health across the state. This is one of the many foundations across the country that was formed with the state’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance company was sold to a private corporation, and it’s been on the local philanthropy scene for about five years now. Blue Cross-affiliated funders have been picking up steam in opioid-related funding in several places across the country right now.

MHF recently awarded a $50,000, two-year grant to the Kalispell Regional Hospital to support its neonatal intensive care unit practices for treating babies with opioid drug withdrawal. Infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome are increasingly common in Montana, so this is a way to treat young opioid victims after the damage has already been done.

But MHF’s support for this issue goes well beyond one $50,000 grant. The funder released a report recently, “Strategies to Address Perinatal Substance Use Disorders,” which emphasizes the need for team-based prenatal care. This is part of the funder’s new initiative for 2018 that is centered on perinatal drug use, and a big part of launching the initiative has been studying how other U.S. states are addressing the issue. The CEO of MHF, Aaron Wernham, has said that this is a local health problem where it can truly make a difference, so the foundation has been going “all in” to raise awareness about something that very few others have been talking about.

Wernham has suggested practical measures like giving all women who come to hospitals seeking prenatal care a questionnaire to determine the level of risk for drug use. The results of the report suggest that the best way to address this issue is to combine prenatal care with substance abuse treatment and to intervene early with treatment and counseling to improve the health of both mothers and babies.

An even more challenging aspect of addressing the issue of perinatal drug use is getting healthcare providers, social services, child welfare workers, and the judicial system to work together for a common benefit. Efforts that date back to 2014 at Kalispell Regional Hospital have been successful so far in terms of reducing substance abuse in pregnant women, forced foster care placement, and increased hospitalization for babies exposed to opioids. Right now, MHF is looking for low-cost interventions that have practical and immediate applications (both during and after pregnancy) to build upon the successes seen so far. To this end, the funder plans to award millions of dollars more to hospitals, and it has extended an invitation to institutions to contact the foundation with new program ideas.

“We want somebody in the community to take charge of this problem and develop a solid team-based approach to providing both prenatal care and addictions treatment side by side,” Wernham said.

You can download the foundation’s report here to learn more about the potential solutions and access details about current funding opportunities on the Solving Perinatal Drug and Alcohol Use page.