Gov. Nikki Haley will tackle rural South Carolina’s historically high infant mortality rate by sending nurses into the homes of thousands more first-time, low-income mothers.
In a press conference Tuesday at the Statehouse, Haley announced a $30 million expansion of Nurse-Family Partnership, a program that has demonstrated success in several rural South Carolina counties and in other states across the nation.
The Post and Courier highlighted how well this program works in a four-part series last year titled “Cradle of Shame.”
The newspaper’s investigation revealed that infants in rural South Carolina continue to die before their first birthday at very high rates compared with babies in urban parts of the state.
The state’s overall infant mortality rate hit its lowest level ever in 2014, but for some black babies in rural South Carolina, the death toll runs four times higher than the national average, mirroring rates in undeveloped countries.
While Nurse-Family Partnership is one of several promising programs already up and running in South Carolina, the newspaper found that many of these aren’t available in rural pockets that need the most help and receive little or no state investment.
Haley said that the Nurse-Family Partnership expansion will be paid for with private donations and federal money.
More than half will come from the private donors, including an $8 million gift from the Duke Endowment. The remainder will be covered by the federal Medicaid program.
“This innovative program is going to allow us to improve the health of our children and families, and it’s a perfect example of what we can do when leaders from the private sector and public service work together,” Haley said in a prepared statement.
In five years, the $30 million expansion will reach an additional 3,200 families in 29 counties. Approximately 1,200 families are already served by Nurse-Family Partnership in South Carolina.
The program is expensive. It costs at least $4,800 a year per mother, but it is credited with saving four times that much money in costs related to unhealthy newborns and their long-term well-being.
In South Carolina, an estimated 6.5 infants per 1,000 live births die before their first birthday. In the United States, the infant mortality rate is slightly lower than 6 deaths per 1,000 live births. In several rural South Carolina counties, the death toll exceeds 14 babies per 1,000 births.
Nurse-Family Partnership works by pairing nurses with their assigned mothers. They meet at home several times each month throughout the mother’s pregnancy, and then regularly after delivery until their babies turn 2 years old.
Studies have shown this intervention reduces infant death and other childhood health problems.
Fewer babies enrolled in Nurse-Family Partnership are born prematurely or need treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit.
According to a press release from Haley’s office, the South Carolina expansion will hopefully reduce preterm births, decrease child hospitalizations, space out women’s pregnancies and increase the number of mothers served in low-income communities.
McLeod Health in Florence has sponsored a Nurse-Family Partnership since late 2014. Kristen Miller, a nurse who manages the hospital system’s program, said she is “very excited” with the expansion because it will allow them to increase the number of nurses from six to eight. With those additional nurses, the number of mothers served through McLeod’s program will increase from 150 to 200 in Florence, Darlington, Dillon and Marlboro counties.
Joe Waters, vice president of the Institute for Child Success in Greenville, said private donations and federal dollars will expand Nurse-Family Partnership from 26 to 29 counties and reduce the number of families on waiting lists.
“It’s allowing us to go much deeper,” he said, “to reach many more moms who need the intervention.”
It is unclear how many South Carolina mothers would qualify for the program if it were available statewide.
More than 50,000 babies are born in this state every year. More than half of those births are paid for by the low-income Medicaid program.
Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, national spokeswoman for Nurse-Family Partnership, credited The Post and Courier’s investigation for the program’s expansion in South Carolina.
“ ‘Cradle of Shame’ opened the eyes of many people about the sad disparities for babies in South Carolina,” she said.
Dr. Scott Sullivan, a maternal-fetal specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina, agreed.
“Poor women, especially minority and rural ones, don’t have much of a voice,” Sullivan said. “I think this is going to have an impact, and hopefully a sustainable one.”