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Drug tests ahead for expectant mothers

Goal is finding babies who might face withdrawal

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CINCINNATI - After Amanda Mills delivered her first three children, she found herself addicted to the painkillers her doctor had prescribed.

"I was obviously abusing it to the point where I wasn't getting an effect of that anymore, so I moved to heroin," she said Monday.

Luckily, she wasn't an active addict during those three pregnancies and none of the children developed any problems.

Mills tried for three months to quit, but the drugs had too powerful a hold on her and the treatment wasn't successful.

A month later, she found out she was pregnant again and decided she had to make a change for her own health and the life of her unborn child due in October.

"I knew then that I needed to do something to save my baby," she said. "I wouldn't put my baby through that."

She tried outpatient treatment at the Clermont County Recovery Center, but was referred to First Step Home in Walnut Hills for inpatient help.

"I don't know about other treatments, but this one saved my life," she said.

Mills' actions to prevent her newborn son from becoming drug dependent were hailed by First Step Home outpatient therapist Heidi Houston.

"No one wants to use or abuse substances while they pregnant," Houston said.  "It's important to recognize when a woman, especially with an unborn child, is suffering from the disease of addiction."

What Mills did differs from many other expectant mothers in Greater Cincinnati.

The Greater Cincinnati Hospital Council reports the number of drug dependent babies being born in the region tripled from 2009 through 2012. The figure was 11 per 1,000 births in 2009 and 36 per 1,000 births in 2012.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich became so concerned about the numbers that he asked the six children's hospitals in the state to develop solutions and share best practices.

The result for Greater Cincinnati was the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) Initiative. Voluntary universal drug testing will be done on expectant mothers at the time of delivery to identify the babies that might go into withdrawal in the days after they're born.

"It's not to punish the mothers in any way," said Tonda Francis, Vice-President and Regional Hospital Coordinator of the Greater Cincinnati Health Council. "This is to identify those babies so we can observe them and get them into treatment to make their withdrawals a lot easier."

The initiative is designed to save costs by reducing the amount of time a baby stays in the hospital, according to Dr. Vivek Narendran, Director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UC Medical Center.

"Most babies normally go home within two to three days," he said. "Babies who have been exposed to narcotics and are suffering from these withdrawal symptoms end up staying for 16 days on the average in our region."

Francis said the cost of the test is well worth the expense.

"We know that a lot of the cost is going to get absorbed into the hospital system, but this is the right thing to do for these babies," she said. "We do not want it to be a lethal outcome for any baby."

So far, UC Health, Mercy Health, TriHealth, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, The Christ Hospital, Dearborn County Hospital, Fort Hamilton Hospital and Highland District Hospital plan to conduct the voluntary tests by Sept. 1.

Dora Anim works for the Health Council and is expecting her fourth child in October. She called the initiative a great idea.

"I know that there's already a series of tests that are run for mothers that are pregnant to detect any issues with the babies," she said. "This would be one more test and it's really in our best interest because it helps us detect issues with the baby so we can address them when the baby is born."

Mills said she would like to see drug tests for moms start at the beginning of a pregnancy.

"I hope that it helps other women be able to get treatment before something bad happens or they end up overdosing or end up in jail and get their kids taken permanently," she said.  

First Step Home started a Maternal Addictions Treatment Center in January to address the needs of clients.

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