Bullock praises hospital’s perinatal care project

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock stopped by Kalispell Regional Medical Center on Friday morning for a roundtable discussion with area health providers on the hospital’s flagship perinatal substance abuse care coordination project. The nearly 45-minute long conversation covered a range of topics in public and private health care, from barriers impacting care for substance abuse in Montana to the potential losses in funding should Montana’s Medicaid expansion end in 2019.

At the center of the discussion, however, was Kalispell Regional’s Perinatal Substance Use Treatment Care Coordination Project. The project is a public-private partnership designed to counter the longterm impacts of drug and alcohol use on newborns, women and families through non-judgmental, team-based care and coordination between clinical providers and social service agencies.

That coordination brought to the table representatives from across the continuum of care in the Flathead and Montana, including the Flathead City-County Health Department, the Montana Healthcare Foundation, the state Department of Health and Human Services and specialists from Kalispell Regional Medical Center. Caring for newborns and families adversely impacted by substance abuse “takes a village,” said Kalispell Regional Healthcare President and CEO Pamela Robertson to kick off the discussion.

The issue of substance abuse, in particular among new mothers, is a “complex problem” said Bullock, who noted that, according to Medicaid data, perinatal exposure to drugs and alcohol tripled between 2010 and 2016. He also pointed to increased rates of foster care in the state, as more children are separated from their parents due to substance abuse.

He warned against not becoming “numbed by statistics” and commended Kalispell Regional for “not just saying something must be done but actually doing something about it.”

The hospital’s perinatal care project developed out of a pressing community need, explained Leslie Nyman, director of behavioral health at Kalispell Regional Healthcare. The neonatal intensive care unit was admitting more and more newborns suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — essentially, infants experiencing withdrawal due to exposure to narcotics when in utero. Additionally, hospital staff realized the multigenerational aspect of substance abuse, and that new mothers lacked a chance to develop parenting skills and an opportunity to care for their child.

In short, “We needed to do something,” said Nyman. With grant funding from the Montana Healthcare Foundation, Kalispell Regional Medical Center initiated the perinatal care project in 2014.

Part of the project’s aim is to keep mothers with their children. Prior to the program, 80 percent of newborns admitted to the hospital for substance abuse issues were discharged to foster care. Through the program’s emphasis on holistic care, parenting skills and coordinating with social services to provide mothers and families with access to critical resources, that rate has plunged to 10 percent, said Nyman.

“These people want to parent,” she said. “They don’t love their children any less than the rest of us do. They just don’t know how.”

Mindy Fuzesy, a neonatal intensive care unit specialist at KRMC, said that one of the project’s greatest challenges was overcoming attitudes against mothers struggling with substance abuse. Shifting to a more comprehensive health care model involving social services was a “huge culture change,” she said.

Bullock praised Kalispell Regional for “setting the lead” on community care for opioid-impacted young families. He ended the session by pointing to the potential loss of funding for services supporting the perinatal care project if Montana’s Medicaid expansion, initiated in 2015, isn’t renewed by the Legislature in 2019. “We all have to be deeply aware of” the cuts that the expansion’s end would levy on health providers across the state, he said.

Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at ahorton@dailyinterlake.com or at 758-4439.

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