Funding for Infant Mortality Prevention Restored; Program’s Effectivness Still Questioned

Republicans skeptical of successes claimed by supporters of the Tennessee Governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination in reducing baby deaths have added the program’s full funding back into the Senate’s budget.

Both the Senate and House budget packages include $4.5 million in funding for the program. Republicans had originally indicated their preference to phase the it out.

“We’ll fund it one more year and look at how we need to reduce infant mortality,” said House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, R-Franklin. “Are we doing the right thing? Obviously, something’s not right.”

A soon-to-be-released state report suggests that to date the program hasn’t significantly lowered baby death rates, according to Rep. Debra Maggart, a Hendersonville Republican.

The report concludes that infant death rates are increasing, said Maggart, who chaired the Infant Mortality and Teenage Pregnancy Study Committee.

She said the state should only support programs that have measurable results and her committee’s finding indicate some initiatives combating infant mortality fail meet that criteria.

The study committee report also says the state need to do a better job making pregnant women aware of available prenatal care programs, said Maggart.

The committee was assembled last year to explore the state’s high number of baby deaths after Tennessee’s rates ranked 47 in the county. “We have a real problem and we’ve been throwing real money after it, so we need real results,” she Maggart.

The program became a topic of conflict the last several weeks while legislators hashed out a state spending plan. The governor and House Democrats included program funding in their budgets. Last week, the GOP driven Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee deleted it, calling for a phase out by next year.

Legislative leaders struck a deal on the budget this week, promising to fund the program if the House agreed to drop $16.1 million in spending on a fish hatchery in House Speaker Ken Williams’ legislative district.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he still isn’t convinced the program should be funded.

“We won’t cut anything back that’s legitimately doing something, but for the life of me, we can’t figure out what they do,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination director Bob Duncan — who left the job June 1 — stated at the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee last month that the program has so far made “tremendous progress,” and that cutting the program would result in “an increase in babies dying.”

The infant mortality program offers grants to community programs that seek to lower infant mortality rates, discourage smoking among soon-to-be mothers and analyze deaths of babies.

“We’re not funding things that are not legitimate,” said Susan Miller, the office’s Women’s Health Director. Local programs that fail to produce results are promptly cut, she added.

The Senate OK’d their version of the budget late Thursday night. The House is expected to take up the spending document Friday or Saturday.