HARRISBURG — The state Department of Human Services has formed a work group to come up with recommendations about how to respond when babies are born with drugs in their systems.

The problem has been around for years, but only gotten worse as the state has been ravaged by the opioid crisis, advocates say.

While advocates and lawmakers say the state’s attention to the problem is appreciated, they also expressed little patience in waiting for the work group to provide the guidance necessary to respond.

Federal law requires that when a baby is born with drug exposure, medical authorities are supposed to let child protective services know, whether the drug use is legal or not.

The same federal law also requires that the county have a plan to provide safe care to both the baby and the mom.

Earlier this year, State Rep. Katherine Watson, R-Bucks County introduced legislation that would require medical professionals to notify Children and Youth agencies if a baby is born with drugs in his or her system, regardless of whether the drugs were used illicitly or under the guidance of a doctor. Pennsylvania’s current state law doesn’t require doctors to notify child protection if the mom's on drugs under the supervision of a doctor.

That put medical professionals in a quandary over whether they are supposed to comply with the state or federal law, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice.

Watson also authored legislation that would call for the creation of a legislative task force to examine the state's response to the opioid crisis impact on children. That legislation passed the state House in April. But it hasn't moved in the Senate.

Watson said she hasn’t pushed for further action on her bills because she knows the Department of Human Services has convened the work group and she wants to give them an opportunity to address the problems.

“I’ve told them, I’m not going to wait forever,” she said in an interview in late November.

Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers of Pennsylvania, said that the state moved to provide adequate drug treatment for pregnant mothers in the early 1990s under the leadership of the late Roxanne Jones, then a state senator from Philadelphia.

Since then, the state has established a network of 15 residential treatment facilities for pregnant moms dealing with drug addiction.

“The problem is just so big now,” Beck said. “They’re swamped.”

In 2016, there were 3,897 babies born in Pennsylvania who'd been exposed to illegal drugs during pregnancy, according to the Center for Children's Justice, based in Reading.

That’s more than 10 babies a day, and a 44 percent increase over the 2,706 babies born exposed to drugs in Pennsylvania three years ago.

That data was acquired by the group through formal Right-to-Know requests, Palm said. Her group first asked the state for the information in October, 2015, but the Department of Human Services didn’t begin releasing the data to her group until January, 2016.

“It took quite a bit of time to get any lens, urgency and strategy on a state level,” Palm said.

Pennsylvania was one of 10 states selected to attend a Federal Policy Academy convened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Baltimore last February.

That academy was intended to provide states with the technical assistance to ensure that their guidance and policies will satisfy the federal law and best practice protocols, said Rachel Kostelac, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman.

The state’s workgroup began meeting a month after that policy academy, Palm said.

Kostelac said the state expects to have “draft guidance” available by July.

In the meantime, “We are working with several counties to test the tools developed to ensure that the guidance supports implementation of a coordinated approach at the local level,” she said.

Palm is on the work group, as are employees of the state departments of Human Services, Health and Drug and Alcohol Programs; along with representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, other medical groups, county agencies and the court system.

Palm said the work group “hopefully sets the stage for smart policy, going forward, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for a sense of urgency and guidance now.”

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