The District’s infant mortality rate ticked up in 2012, city officials announced Wednesday — an unwelcome development that comes amid the loss of a key federal grant and the launch of a new effort to reduce infant deaths.
Seventy-four babies less than a year old died in 2012, five more than the previous year, causing the infant mortality rate to rise from 7.4 infant deaths per 1,000 live births to 7.9. That rate remains above the most recent national average of 6.1 but still represents a marked decrease for the city’s historical performance, which was as high as 13.1 as recently as 2007 and stood over 20 in the early 1990s.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) remarked on the long-term progress during an afternoon event at the Community of Hope clinic in the Bellevue neighborhood of Ward 8, but he said the rate remains too high compared with other parts of the country and the world.
“It’s really disheartening to know that a baby is three times more likely to die during the first year in the U.S. as Finland,” he said. “We can do better than that.”
Gray and Health Director Joxel Garcia said they are confident that the rate would drop to a new low in 2013, with preliminary numbers showing 61 infant deaths last year, indicating a potential rate of 6.6 deaths per 1,000 live births.
But the release of the official 2012 numbers comes at a crucial juncture, with the city recently losing a $4 million annual grant through the federal Healthy Start program, which has threatened the jobs of 38 health department employees serving infants and young mothers.
The new numbers also come as the Gray administration rolls out an effort backed by the Clinton Global Initiative to coordinate infant mortality reduction efforts among government, community service providers and private partners with a goal of dropping the city’s rate below 5 by 2020.
One of those private partners, Wal-Mart, will provide gift baskets to moms who complete education programs, a company representative said Wednesday.
Gray and Garcia repeated assurances Wednesday that the services offered by the city workers at risk, including home visits to families, would continue being offered in the city by other providers. But they offered little detail on how that transition would be made or whether new funding would be made available to facilitate it.
Workers in the city’s Perinatal and Infant Health Bureau, funded through Healthy Start for two decades, have been told they could be laid off as soon as Oct. 10, but officials said this week that they will be kept on at least until year’s end.
“The services for our patients will not be affected,” Garcia said. “We are going to be working with our community partners. We are going to be working with all the different segments of our communities to make sure that home visiting . . . will continue in the District. It might not be provided by the Department of Health.”
Maria S. Gomez, founder and president of Mary’s Center, a D.C. clinic started in 1988 to serve low-income mothers, said she was wary about the loss of federal funding — which came after the Department of Health and Human Services moved from a block grant to a competitive model — but said it wasn’t wholly surprising.
“The federal government doesn’t really reward cities like this who have made strides,” she said. “As soon as infant mortality gets low, the funding goes away.”
Community groups such as Mary’s Center will continue conducting home visits with federal support, but Gomez said the end of Healthy Start funding will mean fewer workers surveilling and counseling at-risk families. City officials said they expect the onus to also shift in the post-Obamacare landscape to private health-care managers — Medicaid managed-care organizations and private insurers responsible for directing the care of their enrollees.