Healthy Start calls for help to keep babies alive

Published February 6, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - As the birthrate accelerates, health advocates say Florida must spend much more to reduce infant deaths and underweight babies, especially in the Tampa Bay area.

The cry for help came Monday from leaders of Healthy Start, a program started by Gov. Lawton Chiles 16 years ago to reduce Florida's infant mortality rate.

Advocates say while infant deaths in Florida have declined in recent years, they remain "shockingly" high, the result of too many young women living in poverty with poor education and nutrition and no access to health care.

At the same time, Florida had about 250,000 births last year, and the state is on pace to soon eclipse New York to become the nation's third most populous state.

The advocates who run local Healthy Start coalitions want to build on last year's success of getting nearly $12-million more than the year before.

"Our resources are inadequate to address the current need," said Ann Davis, a coalition leader. "Healthy babies are the building blocks of healthy communities."

But in the earliest stage of the annual crafting of a budget, Gov. Charlie Crist is suggesting the same amount of Healthy Start funding next year, even though advocates say only 47 percent of the need is now being met.

The national "Kids Count" study ranks Florida in the lower third of states, 33rd out of 50, in quality of care for children.

In 2005, Florida recorded more than 1,600 infant deaths and nearly 20,000 low-birth-weight babies, advocates said.

The same year, Hillsborough County's infant mortality rate was 8.9 for every 1,000 births, compared with a statewide rate of 7.5, according to the Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County.

Nine percent of all babies born in Hillsborough that year had low birth weights, increasing risks of premature death or mental disabilities.

In Gadsden County near Tallahassee, Healthy Start established an infant burial fund last year because many women could not pay to bury their lost children. Donations of more than $2,000 helped to pay for some burials, said Kelly Parker of the Healthy Start program in Quincy.

"This isn't Darfur," said Dr. Charles Mahan, the former state health officer who helped create Healthy Start. "Florida is one of the wealthiest political entities in the history of the world. Yet in some parts of our state, the infant mortality rate is the same as countries in the developing world. We can do better."

Health advocates said they are speaking out now because they have received encouraging signals from a new governor.

"Gov. Crist has laid out a visionary and progressive agenda for our state," Mahan said. "We're here today to call on him and the members of the Florida Legislature to make healthy births for Florida's newborns a priority."

Crist's budget proposal offers no added money for Healthy Start next year, even though the state provides only about half of its budget (the rest comes from the federal Medicaid program). Under a matching grant formula, the more the state spends, the more it gets back from the federal government.

Crist had not chosen a new health director when the budget was assembled, and he has said his agency chiefs will make supplemental spending proposals.

Crist's major health initiative is $1.3-million to reduce obesity in young children. He also has designated his new health secretary the state's first surgeon general.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is calling for a $6.3-million boost in Healthy Start funding for next year, the first stage of a proposed $37.5-million increase over the next five years.

By the numbers

1,600 More than this number of infant deaths occurred in Florida in 2005.

20,000 Nearly this number of low-birth-weight babies were born in Florida in 2005.

250,000 Number of babies born in Florida last year.