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In 2016, the infant mortality rate in Wisconsin for white babies was 5.3 per 1,000 live births. For black babies it was 15.2 per 1,000 live births.

That is according to recently released statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Human Services.

Those are startling figures that go much deeper than skin deep. They point to societal differences that need to be addressed.

In studying this issue, ABC for Health, a Wisconsin nonprofit promoting access to health care, has pointed to several stressors that affect the rate.

Among them is the state’s practice of collecting birth costs from fathers who have children with unmarried women on Medicaid.

It’s known as Birth Cost Recovery. While the practice is allowed under title IV-D of the federal Social Security Act, most states in the nation have abandoned the practice.

However, Wisconsin is among a small handful of states that continues to pursue this policy, and takes the most aggressive enforcement posture in the nation, collecting over $16 million in 2016, according to ABC for Health.

Unlike child support, none of the recovered dollars go to support the children and families – it is all directed to reimburse the government at the federal, state and local level, ABC for Health’s website states.

Racine County is the fourth-highest collector of birth costs, behind only Milwaukee, Dane and Brown counties, according to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

From 2011 to 2016, Racine County collected $4.6 million in birth cost recovery expenses, with Racine County keeping $693,476.

In 2016 alone, Racine County collected $721,841 with the county able to retain $108,276.

In addition, that year Racine County had the fourth-highest number of infant deaths, 16 babies less than 28 days old and five babies between 28 days and a year.

To try to help families, the state recently told counties to stop collecting birth costs from men who father children with unmarried women on Medicaid if the men live with the women and support the children, according to a Wisconsin State Journal article.

According to ABC for Health, the state makes pregnant women on Medicaid identify who fathered their children or risk losing coverage after their babies are born. It then requires fathers to pay some of the costs for pregnancy care and birth.

That causes stress to pregnant women who fear repercussions from the men, discourages the women from seeking proper care and contributes to infant deaths, Bobby Peterson, executive director of ABC for Health, told The State Journal.

While mothers can ask for an exception to the reporting rule if they fear abuse, apparently it’s rarely used and not well understood.

The state’s recent decision to limit collections is a step in the right direction and the state should continue to look for ways to help lower the infant mortality rate. Having an infant mortality rate of 15.2 per 1,000 babies is a number no one should be happy with.

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