Franciscan Health nurses

Registered nurse Tim Loeber checks a defibrillator earlier this year at Franciscan Health hospital in Munster. The health system is launching a program to help mothers who are addicted to drugs.

John J. Watkins, The Times

Franciscan Alliance is launching a program in Northwest Indiana to assist pregnant women and mothers addicted to drugs.

The Grace Project helps the women and their babies with everything from substance abuse treatment to housing and transportation. Franciscan has had the program in central Indiana since 2015 but is expanding it to northern and western Indiana, as well as the south suburbs of Chicago.

"It can cover the cost of the treatment, to a ride to and from the hospital, to a hot meal, to an electric bill," said Rick Peltier, executive director of the Franciscan Health Foundation for northern Indiana. "There are so many needs surrounding this crisis. Franciscan wants to do our part of help any way we can."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called neonatal abstinence syndrome, where babies are born dependent on drugs, an "often hidden consequence of the opioid epidemic." The incidence of the condition tripled between 1999 and 2013.

In Indiana, babies are born dependent on opioids at a third more than the national average, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health. Through the end of August, 15.7 percent of Indiana babies tested were addicted to opioids, compared to 10.7 percent nationwide.

In utero exposure to opioids puts infants at risk for social, emotional and intellectual delays, and can impair long-term immunity and protection against pathogens, medical experts say. Then there are the withdrawal symptoms.

"Babies can have seizures, shaking, tremors," said Joan Culver, administrative director of women and children's services for Franciscan Alliance. "They can be inconsolable. They can be difficult to feed. They can struggle with vomiting."

The Grace Project helps pay for the women's treatment above what insurance will cover, the baby's medical expenses and everyday needs for the family. In the Indianapolis area, the program has assisted 31 families with a total of $36,000.

"It's more than just treatment; it's helping the whole person," Culver said. "We need baby and mom to be in the right place."

Franciscan is launching the program Tuesday to coincide with Giving Tuesday, a national day of philanthropy. To donate to the Grace Project, visit franciscanhealth.org/givingtuesday.

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Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.