— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama is launching a program called "State of Champions" that is aimed at getting the state out of one of the top spots in a national ranking.
Alabama is traditionally in the top three states for the percentage of children who die within the first year of live. State Health Officer Don Williamson and Gov. Robert Bentley, a physician, talked to health care professionals Friday about how the new program aims to reduce the infant mortality rate.
"This gives us an opportunity to make a difference," Williamson said.
Bentley said there's a lot of difference to be made because Alabama's infant mortality rose from 8.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011 to 8.9 deaths in 2012. The national average is around 6.0 percent each year, and Alabama is traditionally among the top three states. Bentley said the state especially needs to address racial differences, which is 14.4 deaths for black babies and 6.6 for white babies.
Williamson said components of the new "State of Champions" program include:
—expanding a program that provides cribs to low-income families so that babies won't sleep with their parents and risk suffocation.
—expanding a smoking cessation program for pregnant women because smoking increases the chance of a baby dying in the first year of life by 50 percent.
—phasing out the state paying for early deliveries that aren't medically necessary and encouraging health insurance companies to do the same because babies delivered at 39 or 40 weeks have a higher survival rate.
—reducing the number of unintended births, which make up half of Alabama's births, because unintended babies have a higher death rate. To do that, the health officer and governor are advocating providing long-acting reversible contraception to new mothers who want it before they leave the hospital.
"Not only do we want to be champions in football, we want to be champions in the health of our children," Williamson said.
Alabama has long had one of the nation's highest death rates for infants. Gov. Guy Hunt and state health officials launched a similar program during the early 1990s called "Healthy Beginnings," but it faded after Hunt's administration.
Williamson recalled that program, but said he expects "State of Champions" to stick around because people now have a better understanding of how healthy children are vital to the state's economic success.
He said the state Department of Public Health is allocating $2.5 million to the program this year and hopes to get the governor and Legislature to provide $4 million for next year.