Advocates say House budget cuts could stop Healthy Start infant care programs

TALLAHASSEE — Alone and new to the United States, Maurine Kisob says she found an "American family'' with the staff at the Healthy Start program.

They found her a new apartment when she told them she was in an abusive relationship. They gave her a playpen for her premature baby, Chelsea. They taught her how to breast feed.

"They let me know that I could be strong," said Kisob, of Tampa, an immigrant from Cameroon. ''I feel so grateful to them. My caseworker is like a sister to me."

But the foundations of the Healthy Start program in Florida might soon be upended.

Amid Children's Week at the Legislature, on the table is a plan that could save $4 million, but might endanger the pre-natal and infant care program.

The House's proposed budget ends the funding for the state's Healthy Start coalitions, the administrative arms of the program that raise money and maintain networks with local hospitals. The duties of the coalitions, including administering $68 million for services for moms and at-risk newborns, would be delegated to county health departments, although only 25 of the 67 counties have some sort of pre-natal care programs.

"We didn't want to take direct services away from moms and babies," said Rep. Denise Grimsley, who is in charge of the House's health care budget. "We thought this was the best way to deal with cost reductions."

The Senate's budget proposal doesn't eliminate funding for Healthy Start Coalitions, and the two chambers are in talks to hammer out a single proposal.

Directors of the coalitions warn that the change could put the whole program at risk. The coalitions seek grants and partnerships with local organizations to augment state dollars with an additional $32 million a year, according to the group's records.

"This is the time when communities have the greatest needs for the basics," said Jane Murphy, head of the State Association of Healthy Start Coalitions and the director of the Hillsborough County program. "Families that never thought they'd need our assistance all of sudden need baby formula'' and other help.

Murphy said shifting work to a new entity could put employees out of work and endanger contracts with agencies that work with Healthy Start. Hanging in the balance is the care of more than 100,000 new moms and tens of thousands of babies.

Established in 1991, Healthy Start tackled the state's soaring infant mortality rate, helping ensure that pregnant women knew how to take care of themselves so that they gave birth to healthy children.

Counselors might help a low-income mom find a service to provide a car seat or baby formula. And if a baby is premature, staffers help prepare the mother for the anguish of leaving the child at the hospital.

"It's one of the most painful things," said Dennielle Noguiera, 36, of Miami, whose baby, Zoe, was born at 25 weeks. "But counselors help you see it's okay to go through those emotions."

Statewide, more than 124,000 pregnant moms received services from Healthy Start last year.

Under the program, the infant mortality rate has dipped about 25 percent. Florida now has the lowest rate in the South.

Advocates say House budget cuts could stop Healthy Start infant care programs 04/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 10:53pm]

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