Maryland corporations could save themselves millions of dollars in health-care costs by getting involved in the fight against infant mortality, business leaders were told yesterday at the state's first conference on the issue.
About 11 of every 1,000 babies born in Maryland die before their first birthday -- a rate slightly higher than the national average. Countless others born with health problems may survive only because of extraordinary medical attention. The cost, business leaders were told, is staggering:
* In 1991, Maryland employers spent almost $30 million to cover uncompensated health-care costs for mothers and their babies.
* Nationally, nearly $5.6 billion is spent annually for the care of low birth-weight babies.
* And, while prenatal care can cost as little as $500, caring for a low birth-weight baby with health problems can cost $500,000 over a lifetime.
"Health-care costs are truly staggering, but more staggering is that much of it could be prevented," Sam Schwab, president of S. Schwab Co. and chairman of the Maryland Commission on Infant Mortality Prevention, told yesterday's conference in Annapolis.
"Prenatal care is one of the best ways to lower health-care costs. For every $1 spent, it's $3.40 saved in the first year alone," he said.
G. Robert O'Brien, an executive vice president of Cigna Corp., said Maryland has a variety of prenatal programs in place, but services must not be reaching the intended population in large enough numbers.
"Maryland has better access to programs than a lot of states, but the results have not been good," he said. "So something has to be changed."
Cigna turned over a $30,000 check to Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall, to be used for a program where health-care workers go into high risk communities to help deliver pre-natal care.
Mr. Neall said there are pockets in Anne Arundel County where "infant- mortality rates are the same as Third World countries," despite median family incomes of $50,000 and above in those same areas.
"It's shocking and it's unacceptable," Mr. Neall said.
In the United States, more than 40,000 babies die each year before their first birthdays, a rate of 10 deaths in every 1,000 live births. The United States ranks 22nd in preventing infant mortality, meaning that 21 developed countries have fewer deaths per live births.
Many health problems experienced by infants are linked to low birth weight. Babies weighing less than 5 pounds have a much higher risk of death within the first year and of developing serious health and learning problems if they survive.
"Low birth-weight babies are two to three times more likely to suffer blindness, deafness, mental retardation and other handicapping conditions," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of education and special secretary of the Office for Children, Youth and Families. "To maintain these babies can cost as much as $180,000 a year."
Several panelists said that business concern about the problem has been fueled by skyrocketing health-care costs, losses in worker productivity and the increasing number of women in the work force.
"In the past, it wasn't an issue," said Paul Chaney, a representative from Black & Decker Corp. who attended the four-hour conference. "As costs increase, priorities change. For us, it's a cost issue. But it's equally important to meet your employees' needs. And we have more and more employees in the child-bearing years."
The conference was sponsored by the Cigna Corp., the Maryland Commission on Infant Mortality Prevention and the Maryland Business Council.
Panelists included business executives, government officials and doctors. Among the 120 people in attendance were health-care professionals and executives of some of the state's largest employers.