A 13-year-old program aimed at supporting new and expectant mothers in Baltimore has helped reduce the number of babies who die in their first year by more than a third, according to a report evaluating the impact of B’more for Healthy Babies.
The report by the Abell Foundation, a nonprofit that funds programs and research in Baltimore, was released Tuesday. It found the program had specifically reduced the number of Black and Hispanic babies that died, narrowing long-standing racial disparities.
“In 2009, 128 babies died before their first birthday in Baltimore City,” the report begins.
“Black babies were five times more likely to die than white babies, a reflection of the deep inequities in health and resources faced by Baltimore families,” it continues. “Although the main causes of infant mortality — prematurity, low birth weight, and sleep-related deaths — were known, city leaders struggled to confront them.”
The answers in part came from intensive efforts to identify mothers and babies at risk and sending resources. Families without access to medical care and other basic needs like food or information on safe sleep practices were considered at higher risk, along with Black women at all income levels, who are more likely to face bias from health care providers, the report noted.
Officials in the program, operated by the Baltimore Health Department along with the Family League and Healthcare Access Maryland, worked with doctors and community groups to identify vulnerable people and went to their homes to provide resources. In addition to health care, that included physical items like cribs, educational resources on safe sleep and emotional resources, including support groups. They targeted two neighborhoods, Patterson Park and Upton/Druid Heights, for more attention.
About 86% of pregnant people enrolled in Medicaid, the federal-state health program for low-income residents, receive some services from B’more for Healthy Babies, such as education on safe sleep and the risks of smoking or referrals to healthy food or exercise programs, the report said. That’s about 4,000 city residents annually.
The effects have bounced a bit over the years, but infant deaths have trended down. Overall, the report authors found the infant mortality rate dropped to 8.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2019, the latest year assessed, from 13.5 per 1,000 live births in 2009.
The rate for Black babies dropped to 11.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2019 from 18.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2009.
The Abell report said the program faced potential financial strain that threatened existing services and efforts to expand.
The report said funding, which comes primarily from various federal sources, was expected to drop in the coming fiscal year beginning in July. A far smaller percentage of funding comes from donations, and the largest donor, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, was slated to end its funding this year.
CareFirst officials said Tuesday they are “proud of the work this collaborative has accomplished” and will extend funding for three more years.
The program would need to raise about $1.145 million annually to continue all current services. An additional $5 million was needed to expand services beyond the two current neighborhoods where officials worked most intensely to reach pregnant people. In all, B’more for Healthy Babies would need an annual budget of $41 million to meet its goals for expansion.
Officials at Abell, which has provided some grant money to the program over the years, produced the report to draw attention to the positive results and identify which aspects of the program worked well so details could be provided to policymakers and others.