The average cost of a baby born prematurely in the United States is about $75,000 per week.
The cost if that baby is born at full term? About $1,300.
Health leaders in Oklahoma say too many babies are born early in Oklahoma, a costly problem that the state's Medicaid agency is trying to combat through a new grant.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority has received a $320,000 federal grant that the agency will use to serve pregnant women in minority groups in Oklahoma, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
“It was really important to us not to throw more money at the problem,” said Dr. Sylvia Lopez, the chief medical officer of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, Oklahoma's Medicaid agency. “We actually felt like we could do it and spend less money, so that was a challenge to us, and we looked at ways we might be able to do it.”
Oklahoma has the 46th highest rate of babies born prematurely in the U.S. A total of 13.6 percent of babies born in Oklahoma are born prematurely. Nationwide, 11.7 percent of babies are born premature.
SoonerCare is Oklahoma's Medicaid program. About 26,000 pregnant Oklahoma women were signed up for SoonerCare in January, according to the authority.
Lopez said the authority will partner with three clinic sites that serve SoonerCare members in Oklahoma to implement enhanced prenatal care through what's known as a group visit model.
Under a group visit model, eight to 12 pregnant women will get about two hours of education on topics related to pregnancy and motherhood, Lopez said.
Compared to the 15-minute doctor visit the average pregnant women gets, this is huge, she said.
The partner clinics are Oklahoma City Indian Health Clinic, the Choctaw Nation Tribal Clinic in Talihina and the Oklahoma State University Department of Obstetrics in Tulsa.
Lopez said these clinics were chosen because of the population of women they serve.
Many factors involved
About 18 percent of black babies in Oklahoma are born premature, and 13 percent of American Indian babies born in Oklahoma are born premature.
The definition of prematurity is a baby born before 37 weeks of gestational age, Lopez said. At this point, a baby's brain and lungs are not finished developing, which can cause significant health problems in these children.
“It's not just a matter of being premature and it costing $75,000 a week,” Lopez said. “A lot of these premature infants go home and still have significant problems.”
These health problems include cognitive impairment and cerebral palsy, she said.
“In the United States, we spent approximately $26 billion a year for premature infants,” she said. “It's a significant drain on our budget.”
Research shows women who participated in these types of group models in other states have had longer pregnancies, seen a decreased rate of premature births, quit smoking more often than if they hadn't been in the group, go to the emergency room less often and have a higher rate of breast-feeding, she said.
This is partially because the women learn to rely on each other as resources.
“They are empowered to help each other out,” Lopez said. “... We hope that it will continue even after the pregnancy is over, and if it does, we think a lot of these women will help each other out, in terms of nutrition, perhaps taking better care of themselves, taking better care of their babies.”