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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan sends wrong message by shorting women’s hospital



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DETROIT — Nobody would compare Wayne State University to Yale. But in one area — research into at-risk pregnancies — Detroit’s huge state university outranks the Ivy League school.

Fifteen years ago, the National Institutes of Health decided to locate its perinatology research branch at Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit. Hutzel is run by Wayne State’s medical school. Last year, Yale, one of the oldest and highest-ranked universities in the nation, bid for the branch.

But Washington selected Wayne State over Yale for a second time, awarding Wayne State a $165.9 million grant to continue the work over the next decade. That may have happened partly because Hutzel, in the heart of inner-city Detroit, delivers more at-risk babies than almost any other hospital in the nation.

Hosting the center is an impressive achievement for not only the university, but also Michigan. This is anything but just another institute.

The work that goes on there saves lives, through research and patient care. Scientists working there have discovered a progesterone gel that promises to reduce premature births among at-risk mothers by nearly half.

Last year, Wayne State researchers at the center found a way to measure brain connectivity in fetuses, which could potentially lead to ways to prevent autism and dyslexia before birth.

Yet last week, the Michigan Legislature may have put this entire vital program at risk, for the sake of a virtually meaningless cost saving. For years, the state has contributed to Hutzel’s annual funding, which this year amounts to $6.7 million.

That money, however, is matched two dollars for one by the federal government. That has meant $20 million this year for the hospital, which delivers 4,500 at-risk babies each year.

But this year, the Legislature eliminated nearly all funding for Hutzel, an astonishing omission that went unnoticed until it was brought to the public’s attention by former state senator and U.S. representative Joe Schwarz, who is a doctor.

Two weeks ago, writing in his hometown paper, the Battle Creek Enquirer, Dr. Schwarz explained the situation. He wrote: “This is no time for the state to cut … its efforts to fight infant mortality. Surely there is no greater return on investment than saving the lives of Michigan women and their babies.”

When a supplemental budget bill was passed last week, it restored half the funding for Hutzel. Still, when the lost matching dollars are factored in, it means $10 million a year less for what is perhaps the most promising and far-reaching health-care program in the state.

After the vote, Dr. Schwarz told me that what lawmakers had done was “penny-wise and pound foolish.”

“I fear that few members of the Legislature know of, and almost none understand, the perinatal research branch, what it does, and what a jewel it is,” he added.

That may be partly the result of term limits. Lawmakers who are restricted to six years’ service may not have enough time to understand the complexity of government.

The fact that the perinatal research branch wasn’t completely defunded may have been the result of last-minute pleading by state Sen. Roger Kahn, a Republican who is a medical doctor.

Trying to put the best face on the situation, Wayne State’s medical school issued a statement through Dr. Sonia Hassan, associate dean for maternal, perinatal, and child development: “For more than 15 years, Hutzel Women’s Hospital and Wayne State University, which hosts the perinatology research branch, have worked together to save pregnant women and babies. We hope the state will do everything it can to ensure our work continues.”

Theoretically, the state still could pass a bill to restore the program’s funding, though nobody in the know seems interested. Many economists and politicians, including Gov. Rick Snyder, have said repeatedly that Michigan’s only hope for future prosperity lies in creating high-technology jobs and opportunities.

Starving Michigan’s premier medical research program would not seem to send a positive signal to the rest of the nation.

Nor is a refusal to repair roads that rapidly are becoming the nation’s worst likely to persuade businesses to expand in or move to Michigan. Yet the Legislature is stripping funding from the perinatal center, and has repeatedly ignored the governor’s pleas to spend the $1.2 billion a year needed to fix the state’s crumbling and increasingly dangerous roads.

You might legitimately ask what lawmakers are thinking. The most likely answer seems to be that they aren’t.

Incidentally, although I am a full-time faculty member at Wayne State, nobody there suggested I write this column. I have no connection with the medical school, Hutzel, or the perinatology research branch, and know no one who works there or has directly benefited from treatment.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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