LONDON – Every hour a baby is born dependent on drugs in the United States.

Because that figure is based upon 2009 data – the latest available – officials believe the problem is actually much worse today.

Caring for these infants and addressing ways to help mothers was the focus of a roundtable discussion held last week at the London Community Center.

More than 60 people – including hospital officials, medical professionals, state and local leaders, and drug control officials from across southern and eastern Kentucky – participated in the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) forum.

“Kentucky has seen an unfathomable increase in infants suffering from NAS over the last decade, so it’s time to start the dialogue between physicians, healthcare leaders, legislators and other stakeholders to find a way to better help drug-addicted pregnant women and their babies,” said U.S. Fifth District Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, urging immediate action to prevent the “collateral damage being done to the innocents.”

“With Operation UNITE, we’ve learned community action and awareness makes the difference,” said Rogers, who helped launch the anti-drug organization 10 years ago and co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse. “Now, we’re shifting our focus to the O.B. Floor of our hospitals where nurseries are filled with drug-exposed infants who shake and shriek in pain.”

In addition to Rogers, program participants included Carla Saunders, neonatal nurse practitioner at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital; Dr. Ruth Shepherd, director of the Division of Maternal and Child Health in the Kentucky Department for Public Health; and Dave Hopkins, program manager for the Kentucky All-Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting (KASPER) system within the Kentucky Office of Inspector General.

According to a recent report in The Courier-Journal newspaper, hospitalizations for addicted newborns in Kentucky has increased 2,400 percent, from 29 in 2000 to 730 in 2011.

Saunders, who was honored last year as a “Great American Hero” for her leadership in the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome program, said the cost to care for a NAS baby averages about $53,000 nationally – more than seven times that of a normal baby.

And the problems don’t end once a baby leaves the hospital.

If the mother is still coming off her treatment for drug addiction, and the baby still exhibits the crying and other symptoms of NAS, “it’s a perfect setup for child abuse or sudden infant death syndrome,” Shepherd stated. “We have no plans for relapse.”

“The first two years of a child’s development is critical,” Shepherd said, adding one of the greatest unknowns is the long-term effect on emotional and social behavior.

In 2012, the Kentucky General Assembly mandated use of KASPER for all prescribed and dispensed narcotics in an effort to reduce prescription drug abuse in the state. Hopkins said that legislation is making an impact and could potentially reduce the problem in the future.

Hopkins said a proposed study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would examine the prescribing history of mothers of infants with NAS along with Medicaid records to identify any patterns that would allow for mitigation and or prevention. This evaluation would include pre-pregnancy, pregnancy and post-pregnancy time frames.

“It’s a complex problem that has to be worked at together,” noted Tom Handy, a retired commonwealth’s attorney and board member for Operation UNITE. “There are ways to coordinate, but we are in new territory.”