The state Senate, the upper chamber of Legislature, has proposed lowering funds for an invaluable state-local program — Florida Healthy Start.
The Florida House of Representatives, which has called for maintaining Healthy Start funding, should stay the course and say no to this unhealthy proposal.
We strongly urge the two senators from our region — Republicans Bill Galvano and Greg Steube — to break ranks with their fellow senators and support an adequate appropriation for a program that improves the lives of individuals and families and benefits communities.
Healthy Start provides services for about 80,000 pregnant women and 56,000 infants, especially those at higher-than-normal risk of illness or death, in all 67 counties. The state's cost — around $66 million — is modest considering Florida's overall budget ($87 billion) and the return on investment.
Yet Florida Healthy Start would lose $19 million — about 29 percent of its funding statewide — if the Senate budget prevails.
This relatively small cut, in terms of the overall budget, would have large, negative impacts. Local Healthy Start Coalitions, such as the excellent one in Sarasota County, already run tight budgets and, despite significant efforts to raise funds from the private sector, would not be able to provide the same level and quality of services with less state money.
Healthy Start provides to expectant mothers and infants of low-income families the care and aid accessible to families with higher incomes. Nurses and other qualified personnel make home visits, arrange for prenatal screenings, promote good nutrition and, in the most risky cases, help mothers overcome addictions.
The program helps mothers, many of whom are single and lack family support systems, prepare for their baby's arrival at home, teaches safe-sleep techniques and breastfeeding (when possible), screens for perinatal depression and ensures access to health care for infants.
All of this work has led to long-term gains since Healthy Start was initiated in 1991. For instance, the infant mortality rate in Florida has been reduced by 35 percent. Research and work by the regional Campaign for Grade-Level Reading are emphasizing the positive roles that access to early-childhood health care and development services have on long-term academic, social and economic achievement.
In the most extreme cases, the benefits of intervention are enormous: According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the cost to society of one drug-exposed newborn is $750,000 by the age 18.
How significant is the need for these and other services? Consider this: About half the babies born in Florida — some years more than 50 percent — are covered by Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance for low-income Americans. (In 2016, 54 percent of the babies born in Manatee County were covered by Medicaid; in Sarasota County, 42 percent.)
Healthy Start has been revamping its intake and referral systems to improve coordination of services and make obtaining them easier for mothers. The coalitions are stepping up their focus on the critical, first 1,000 days of a child's life.
The outcomes for those first 1,000 days will be better if Healthy Start funding is increased or, at the least, maintained.