Legislators, doctors want Medicaid coverage of donor breast milk for premature babies

Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, stands with neonatal doctors Heather Brumberg, Shetal Shah, Senator Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, and Senator Pamela Helming, R-Canandaigua.


Legislators from both parties joined neonatal doctors and advocates to call for Medicaid funding of donor breast milk for premature infants to be included in the final enacted budget.

The bill, (A.6481/ S.4526) sponsored by Senate Health committee chair Kemp Hannon, R- Garden City, and Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, D-Elmont, would cover donor breast milk for low birthweight infants under medicaid. The bill has passed the Senate this session, has been included in the Senate one house budget, and awaits a vote in the Assembly.

Last year, a similar bill (A.9353/ S.6583) passed both houses, but was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and recommended it be included the following year’s budget.

The legislators were joined by several neonatologists who stressed the life or death consequences for premature babies whose families can’t afford donor breast milk. “Donor milk is a precious gift of life to the tiniest and most fragile newborn babies,” said Dr. Boriana Parvez, neonatologist at Westchester Medical Center. “It is the safest and most natural way to nourish them when their mother’s milk is in insufficient quantity.”

Infants born at low birthweight are at high risk of infection and disease, in particular by necrotizing enterocolitis, (NEC) a sudden onset intestinal disease, which can cause infections, feeding intolerance, lifelong intestinal problems, or death. According to Dr. Parvez, premature babies who are fed formula instead of donor milk, usually to cut hospital costs, are three-to-four times more likely to contract NEC.

Donor breast milk is typically two to three times more expensive than formula, and can be unaffordable for most patients. Some hospitals don’t have donor breast milk simply because of the exorbitant cost. However, neonatologists argue that using donor breast milk will save the state money by preventing premature infants from contracting NEC and having prolonged hospital stays, intestinal issues, and infections that can lead to developmental disabilities.

Pediatricians across the country are in agreement over the necessity of donor breast milk access,
according to Dr. Heather Brumberg, President elect of the third New York chapter of the Academy of pediatrics, which includes pediatricians in eight counties including Manhattan, Bronx, Staten Island, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester.

Neonatal Dr. Heather Brumberg said, “all babies deserve access to this resource.”

“This year, in 2017, the academy of pediatrics convened three expert committees together and it is hard, as you know, to get all those experts to agree, but they did, and said that donor milk is the safest for these tiniest babies,” Brumberg said. “All babies deserve equal access to this resource. It should not be a financial burden… We are all in agreement that this is important.”

Assembly health committee chair Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, stressed the importance of listening to the medical community on this issue.

“There is an awful lot of damage that a legislature can do when we try to practice medicine,” Gottfried said. “Here, I think there is an enormous amount of good that we can do, because… neonatologists tell us that not supporting access to donor breast milk…is a kind of negligent homicide.”