Steve Chapman
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African-American babies are far more likely to die than white ones, which is often taken as evidence that poverty and lack of health insurance are to blame. That's entirely plausible until you notice another racial/ethnic gap: Hispanics of Mexican or Central or South American ancestry not only do consistently better than blacks on infant mortality, they do better than whites . Social disadvantage doesn't explain very much.

Nor does access to prenatal care, as the health care critique implies. It used to be assumed that if you assured that pregnant low-income women could see a physician, their infants would do much better. Not necessarily.

When New York expanded access to prenatal care under Medicaid, the effort reduced the rate of low birth weight infants by just 1 percent. In Tennessee, after a similar effort, researchers found "no concomitant improvements in use of early prenatal care, birth weight or neonatal mortality."

So why does our infant mortality rate exceed that of, say, Canada, where health care is free at the point of service? One reason is that we have a lot more tiny newborns. But underweight babies don't fare worse here than in Canada -- quite the contrary.

The NBER paper points out that among the smallest infants, survival rates are better on this side of the border. What that suggests is that if we lived under the Canadian health care system, we would not have a lower rate of infant mortality. We would have a higher one.

A lot of things could be done to keep babies from dying in this country. But the health care "reform" being pushed in Washington is not one of them.

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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