Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed the state’s budget, which proposed reductions to health services for women and children. He also vetoed millions more in health service projects set aside specifically for women and children. Programs that aim to lower infant mortality and increase women’s health in the state have seen a major setback since Scott took office.
Among the many vetoes from last week: a program that would add a test for Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease, or SCID, to the list of genetic diseases newborns are tested for in Florida.
According to Tampa’s Channel 10 news, “lawmakers approved a $2 million start-up plan” to add the $5 test to the list. Scott, though, last week vetoed it, along with other health services for women and children:
Dr. John Sleasman, a USF professor and an immunologist at All Children’s Hospital, also finds the veto hard to understand. “I was a little baffled,” he says.
Sleasman says the screening not only saves lives but, in the long run, it would also save the state money. He says if SCID is caught early, a bone marrow transplant can cure a baby. The survival rate is very high. But after three months of age, the risks and costs skyrocket. If an infant is on Medicaid, the state can pay a million dollars for treatment and still not save the infant’s life.
Sleasman says Scott, with his red veto marker, marked some babies for death. “It bothers me. By delaying it for a year or two, more babies will die needlessly.”
Some experts predict that, without early screening, eight to ten babies will die of SCID in Florida each year.
Scott signed a budget drafted by the state Legislature that cut funding for Healthy Start coalitions in Florida about 15 percent across the board. Healthy Start also lost $700,000 for programs in Orange and Gadsden counties that would have provided at-home nurse assistance for at-risk first-time mothers.
Healthy Start coalitions were created in 1991 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles in an effort to combat Florida’s high infant mortality rate. In 1990, Florida’s infant mortality rate ranked among the highest in the nation, with more than 1,900 infant deaths that year.
According to a 2008 press release on a Healthy Start coalition website, once Healthy Start was launched in June 1991, Florida was able to provide “funding to expand Medicaid coverage for pregnant women, establish a network of community-based coalitions, and develop care coordination and other risk reduction services.”
The program is considered a statewide success in lowering adverse birth outcomes among women on Medicaid who go to Healthy Start clinics.
Scott, however, sees spending on these programs differently. In robo-calls heard throughout the state, Scott’s voice is featured calling the projects he cut “special interest waste.”
Even though Florida was able to address its infant mortality problem, children in Florida still face barriers to proper health care.
According to Healthy Start’s press release:
Florida’s ranking in the National Kids Count annual assessment dropped three places, placing Florida in the bottom third of all states. According to Kids Count, Florida ranks 29th in infant mortality rate, and 48th in children without health insurance. Alarmingly, according to information from The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation, out of all states Florida ranks dead last in access to care in the area of children’s health.
In 2007, Florida had over 1,680 infant deaths and 20,767 low birth weight births. Babies with a very low birth weight have a 25 percent chance of dying before age 1. These infants are at increased risk of long-term disability and impaired development. Infant mortality is considered a sentinel indicator of the health of a community. It is linked to poverty, education, housing, community and family violence, and access to basic health care.
The same statement from Healthy Start also points out that Florida’s biggest problem is “a woman’s health status prior to pregnancy, which is related to an increase in fetal and infant deaths associated with prematurity.”
This year, the Florida Legislature’s budget cuts nearly $1 million dollars from family planning. The Legislature also passed a Medicaid reform bill that will allow providers to opt out of providing family planning services for “moral or religious” reasons.
Judith Selzer, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast, tells The Florida Independent that legislators are focusing their efforts in all the wrong places.
“Instead of attacking women’s access to health care services, including Pap smears, birth control and breast cancer screenings,” she says, “our legislators should be working with us to improve women’s health and to reduce unintended pregnancies.”
Healthy Start’s mission echoes this sentiment. The Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions has argued for the importance of a strategy of funding and planning that “operates from a foundation of viewing pregnancy as a part of a continuum of health care needs through out the lifetime of the individual.”
Selzer says that “Florida families — especially women — will pay the price for the misspent priorities of the 2011 legislative session.”