Helping to battle NAS in West Virginia

One in 20 babies born in West Virginia comes into the world addicted to illicit drugs, primarily opioids.

For those who understand the problem, neonatal abstinence syndrome, recognizing the level it has reached in our state is heartbreaking.

NAS babies are addicted to drugs, because their pregnant mothers abused substances such as opioids. It takes time for the infants to recover, and some go through pure, unadulterated agony in the process. NAS can cause children problems later in life.

Mountain State residents have known for some time that NAS is a serious and growing problem here. But as state legislators learned last week, it is worse than federal statistics seem to indicate.

During interim committee meetings, lawmakers heard about NAS from Christina Mullins, who is director of the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Maternal, Child and Family Health.

One challenge in coping with drug abuse is delays in getting up-to-date information. For example, though 2018 is half over, drug overdose death data for last year remains incomplete.

Mullins told legislators the federal Centers for Disease Control lists West Virginia’s NAS rate at 3.34 percent of all hospital births. Information on which that number was based was collected in 2013.

Since 2016, when they became aware of the CDC data, state officials have been gathering more accurate statistics. That resulted in the 5 percent number.

Even more newborns are affected by their mothers’ drug abuse. As Mullins noted, about 14 percent of babies born in hospitals have been exposed to illicit drugs, though only 5 percent come into the world with fullblown NAS.

Few things distress West Virginians more than knowledge that children are being hurt. So our state is a leader in helping NAS babies.

Using Lilly’s Place in Huntington as a model, specialized NAS treatment clinics are opening or planned in several locations. And our state has become the first to allow Medicaid to pay for NAS treatment.

But we need more help. That is where the federal government should step in with funding for NAS treatment centers. West Virginia may have the worst NAS rate in the nation. Surely someone in Washington recognizes that means we — or, rather, our most helpless residents — need more help.