Stories of lives touched by the opioid crisis are far too many to count, from patients whose prescriptions led them down a path of addiction to the friends and family members left to confront the aftermath of a deadly overdose. Among the saddest are those stories of people drawn into addiction by no choice of their own — babies whose mothers are addicts and who suffer withdrawal symptoms after birth. A number of efforts are underway to help this population with no means to speak for themselves.
A notable one involves a network of lawyers from some 20 firms across the country hoping to win a legal victory against drugmakers to help pay for the care of these babies. The attorneys want to set apart the children born to addicted mothers and who suffer neonatal abstinence syndrome, basically cold-turkey drug withdrawal, as a distinct legal group with its own claim from those companies that manufactured opioid painkillers.
Theirs is an uphill battle. As The Washington Post recently reported, a judge initially ruled their lot should be cast with the 2,000 or so cities, states and entities that have sued the same pharmaceutical companies. Attorneys for the children want to negotiate separately. “Our goal is to make sure that we do not have a tobacco-style settlement, where all of the money goes to the governmental entities, and there’s not a significant trust set aside to help these children,” Stuart Smith, a lawyer in the case, told the Post.
It’s an important distinction. The lawyers represent a massive number of potential clients — more than a quarter of a million children, according to the Post’s report — who face myriad physical and mental health needs related to their mothers’ addictions, not only as babies but well into childhood.
Any number of people whose lives have been irreparably altered by opioid addictions could stake a claim to a piece of the settlement reportedly being hammered out with at least one major drug company, Purdue Pharma. But few people have as plain a case as these newborns. They deserve their own day of reckoning with those responsible for the opioid crisis.
In Massachusetts, some lawmakers want to help these children in a different way. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Barr, R-Gloucester, filed a bill that would treat these babies much the same as those born with fetal alcohol syndrome are treated, and ensure that state developmental services are extended to them.
A worrisome part of his proposal is that the costs behind it are unknown. The reasoning behind it, however, could not be more clear.
State Rep. Ann Margaret-Ferrante, D-Gloucester, a co-sponsor of the legislation, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade: “We’re living in a time where I think most people would agree that there’s more of a chance of a fetus being exposed to opioids than alcohol. We really need to have a discussion about what is happening to these pregnancies and what role the state should play.”
Their number is especially large in the Bay State. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 15 births of every 1,000 in Massachusetts involve babies exposed to opiates — nearly three times the national rate.
While the costs of serving those children may not be known yet, as Tarr told Wade, the long-term costs of their care is probably far greater. And it isn’t just medical treatment; research suggests that babies forced to quit an addiction in their first hours and days of life are more prone to developmental and speech delays later in childhood.
The reach of opioid addiction is vast. Its most pitiful victims are those in its grips even before their lives really begin. There are far more initiatives to support and help them, of course, but these legal and legislative efforts represent important remedies to be pursued.