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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Giving Newborns a Healthy Chance

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The Southern Governors’ Association has selected me to be its new chairman, and this month, I begin my year-long term. Since its founding in 1934, the SGA has represented the many shared interests of governors throughout our region. By working together as leaders of states, we can continue helping to shape and implement national policy, while solving regional problems at home.

One of the problems the SGA has focused on for decades is the high rate of infant mortality in the South. In Arkansas, 281 infants did not survive to see their first birthday in 2011, the most recent year for which we have statistics. When added with numbers from other Southern states, our region’s infant mortality rate, unfortunately, surpasses most of the nation’s.

Historically, Arkansas’s infant mortality rate has declined, just not fast enough. The rate of first-year infant deaths has dropped by more than 20 percent in the past 20 years. And the South as a whole has made progress, as well. In fact, the SGA has been nationally recognized for its work to improve the health of expectant mothers and their newborns. Despite this encouraging news, however, the Arkansas Department of Health still regards the reduction of our infant mortality rate as one of its top priorities. As in our fellow Southern states, several interrelated issues that are deep-seated in our region must be addressed if we are to succeed.

On average, income levels are lower among Southerners than the rest of Americans, leading to a higher poverty rate in our region. Many of our citizens do not have jobs with health-care benefits or cannot afford to self-insure. Annually, nearly one-third of expectant women experience a pregnancy-related complication. Expectant mothers who don’t receive adequate prenatal care run the risk that such complications will go undetected or won’t be identified soon enough. That, in turn, can lead to potentially serious consequences for both mothers and their babies.

Like Arkansas, other states in the South face many challenges: substandard average income levels; the associated high poverty levels; unsatisfactory educational achievement; and the resulting inadequate health-care access for too many families. These factors are largely intertwined. If we are going to improve these infant mortality rates throughout the South, our approach needs to cover many fronts, addressing all of these interrelated factors concurrently.

September is National Infant Mortality Awareness Month. As I take over the chairmanship of the SGA, I look forward to leading on many issues, but this one could have the biggest impact for thousands of Southern families. In Arkansas, the implementation of our Health Insurance Marketplace will extend health insurance coverage to thousands of Arkansas families, including better pre-natal and post-delivery care. Our children are our greatest responsibility, and need the chance to grow up and lead successful lives. In Arkansas, throughout the South and across America, our collective legacy depends on our ability to work together and make sure that all our children have the protection and opportunity they deserve for full childhoods now, and successful lives as adults in the future.