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Is prescribing opioids to a pregnant woman medical malpractice?

The potential health dangers and risk of addiction posed by prescription opioids like hydrocodone, codeine and oxycodone are well known. However, for pregnant women, the drugs can also endanger their babies. Studies have shown that children whose mothers took opioids during pregnancy were more likely to have birth defects impacting their heart, spine and brain. They also risk developing neonatal abstinence syndrome. A newborn with NAS experiences drug withdrawal symptoms.

Therefore, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding how many women of childbearing age are taking prescription opioids is particularly disturbing. The CDC found that from 2008 to 2012, over a quarter of women between 15 and 44 years-old with private health insurance filled an opioid prescription. That percentage was even higher (nearly 40 percent) for women enrolled in Medicaid. The data in the report, which was based on health insurance claims, found that opioid prescription rates were highest here in the South than in any other region of the country.

There could be any of a number of reasons why Medicaid enrollees were more likely to be prescribed opioids, which are used to treat pain and also used in some prescription cough medicines. It could be a difference in their health conditions, the health services they use or the medications covered by their insurance.

The CDC is working to educate women as well as their health care providers about the dangers of prescription opioids and other drugs for anyone who is or may become pregnant via a program called "Treating for Two: Safer Medication Use in Pregnancy." As CDC Director Tom Frieden notes, "Many women of reproductive age are taking these medicines and may not know they are pregnant….That's why it's critical for health care professionals to take a thorough health assessment before prescribing these medicines to women of reproductive age."

The legal ramifications for doctors who prescribe these medications for reproductive-age women whose children are born with birth defects would likely depend on the individual circumstances. For example, did the doctor know the woman was pregnant when he or she prescribed the medication? Regardless of the circumstances, it would be wise for a woman in this situation to seek the guidance of a Florida personal injury attorney to help determine what legal remedies are available to her.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Opioid exposure during pregnancy increases risk of some birth defects" Jan. 22, 2015

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