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Healthy Start is living up to its name

Florida's Healthy Start program screened 81,000 pregnant women and newborn babies in its first six months, steering many to services from childbirth classes to mental health counseling, Gov. Lawton Chiles said Thursday.

Chiles said he will ask lawmakers to increase the $67.4-million they approved this year to extend funding to Healthy Start operations statewide.

The program started in April. Through September, 26,000 pregnant woman were screened.

"About 41 percent of them have been found to have risk factors, either environmental, behavioral or medical, that might interfere with the outcome of their pregnancy," said Dr. Leslie Beitsch, assistant state health officer with the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Through birth records, 55,000 newborn babies also were screened. More than 12 percent showed signs of needing extra health care to survive or develop properly.

The startup funds provide money for 12 local Healthy Start coalitions. Eighteen others are attempting to start up without state money.

Chiles calls the program a perfect example of how government should work. It's operated from the bottom up, not from the top down, managed locally by the 30 community coalitions rather than directed from Tallahassee.

The program spends money on preventive measures that save taxpayers more money later. "All of our figures show that we save $11 for each $1 spent on vaccine," Chiles said.

Connie Smith, the Healthy Start coalition project director for Pinellas County, said the coalition has identified gaps in health services and is trying to fill them.

The health agencies determined that pregnant women in an area of Tarpon Springs were not receiving the kind of prenatal education they needed. Now, Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital has agreed to provide that service, telling pregnant women about diet and behavior that could harm their unborn babies.

For the first time, she said, the coalition has put together the agencies that provide health service for pregnant women and newborns.

"We think it's fully within our reach to provide all women and children with health care," she said.

_ Information from the Associated Press and staff writer Bill Moss was used in this report.

A healthy start

The Healthy Start program tries to identify pregnant mothers or newborns who have risk factors that might interfere with pregnancy or development. In the program's first six months, about 40 percent of the mothers were found to be at risk.


women Percent Babies Percent

County screened "at risk" screened "at risk"

Citrus 97 17.5 176 7.8

Hernando 145 32.4 278 9.3

Hillsborough 1,126 44.0 3,153 13.7

Pasco 344 27.3 677 13.0

Pinellas 1,207 42.0 2,117 13.5

Statewide 26,000 40.0 55,000 12.0