NYC infant mortality up

In 2003, New York City’s infant mortality rate climbed to 6.5 percent, an increase of 8 percent above the previous year’s figure.

The infant mortality rate refers to the deaths of babies less than a year old. For the 124,345 live births in the year 2003, there were 807 deaths. In 2002, the numbers were 122,937 and 742, reflecting a lower rate of 6 percent.

The increase in the mortality rate came as a surprise to many, since Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration has employed a wide array of experts in the field of public health. However, most of these experts simply inform residents of the programs available to them. The system is almost entirely individual-driven and not directed toward a public policy.

Bloomberg’s is not an “activist government” system. In fact, his administration dictated the shutting down of Department of Health community-organizational relationships, although the City Council never agreed with this top-down policy and its committees on health and the environment have been sending warnings to the mayor and the governor. The council has been demanding more health care programs in the community, programs that deliver health services to people in need.

Billionaire Bloomberg advises average New Yorkers to do what he does: “Live within your means.” Low-wage day care and Head Start workers represented by District Council 1707 have had to suffer the indignity of those words.

Class and race are twin determinants of whether infants live or die. The infant mortality rates for each of the five boroughs are predictably very different. In the most affluent borough, Manhattan, the rate is 4.8 percent. If you subtract the especially high mortality rate for the Harlem area of Manhattan, the rate would be even lower. The highest rate is in the Bronx: 8.6 percent.

The Health Department did have to give some rationale for this spike in infant mortality. They reported that there are three major factors that affect infant mortality: alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, access to medical care and the mother’s economic status. Yet, the administration of Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, has resisted a major anti-smoking drive that responds to the existing crisis.

Access to medical care is directly affected by the Republican administrations in NYC, Albany and Washington, D.C., all of which refuse to make community medical services available to those people already covered by Medicaid and Medicare or the growing number of working poor who have no health insurance.

Too many physicians, hospitals and other health care deliverers will not accept Medicaid and Medicare. Or, if they do, they strongly discourage follow-up and preventive visits, which are within the prenatal care period of need. For example, Karen Davis, head of the Commonwealth Fund, has argued for years that Child Health Plus, a federal program to cover newborns, must have automatic enrollment at the time of birth. Currently, less than 50 percent of those eligible are enrolled.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.