Sedgwick County involvement with Healthy Babies program debated

Sedgwick County commissioners argued Tuesday over whether to continue a program designed to help women have healthier babies.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau opposes accepting a $1 million federal grant for the program, called Healthy Babies. He said he had spoken with the Wichita Ministerial League and that the ministers were unaware of a problem with infant mortality, indicating the program lacks community support.

“At some point it has to come from the community, otherwise you have perpetual dependence on the government,” Ranzau said in a Tuesday study session on the program.

Commissioner Tim Norton said county government is part of the community and that the Healthy Babies program has “done remarkable work” in reducing infant mortality and low birthweights.

“Our job is to continue to try to minister to the children and the unborn children,” Norton said.

Commissioners discussed the grant at a meeting two weeks ago but agreed to delay voting on it until after a study session could be held. It will come back for a vote at Wednesday’s commission meeting.

Funding for Healthy Babies comes from two sources, a federal grant administered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that can be used countywide and a separate grant from the Healthy Start program that can only be spent on targeted zip codes with abnormally high infant-mortality rates.

To get the grants, the county has to agree to match the federal spending by providing an equivalent value in staff time, said Adrienne Byrne-Lutz, acting director of the Sedgwick County Health Department.

The county already accepted the $521,000 in Healthy Start money in January.

The KDHE grant, $1,087,000, is the part of the funding package the commission still has to vote on.

In addition to his ideological objection, Ranzau also questioned the effectiveness of the Healthy Start portion of the program, citing a University of Kansas study that said it hadn’t had a measurable effect on the disparate rates of infant mortality between black and white populations.

He also argued that body-mass statistics indicate that the women who choose to participate, regardless of income, are in better physical shape than the female population at large.

Healthy Babies is not a medical program, but a system of education, support and home visits to educate and encourage women – and some men – on proper prenatal health and infant care, Byrne-Lutz said.

From 2005 to 2012, Healthy Babies participants countywide showed marked improvement in all five key areas of measurement, she said.

First-trimester prenatal care increased 15.7 percentage points; breastfeeding was up 15.4; low birthweight dropped 2.7; very-low birthweight was down .7 and premature birth was down 4.1.

Over the seven-year period, Healthy Babies participants averaged 2.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with a state average of 6.8 and a county average of 7.7, she reported.

Within the three zip codes targeted through Healthy Start, results were more mixed.

Improvements included an increase in breastfeeding and declines in premature and low-weight births.

On the downside was a slight decrease in first-trimester care and an increase in very-low-weight births.

Both those measures remained better than the county averages. Byrne-Lutz also cautioned that those numbers fluctuate more year-to-year because of the smaller number of participants involved.

From 2005 to 2012, participation in Healthy Babies increased from 914 to 1,128, Byrne-Lutz said.

Those numbers included 281 Healthy Start participants in 2005, which rose to 325 by 2012.

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