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Commentary: Bipartisan help for pregnant teens

By Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger, St. Paul, MN and Horizon Public Health Administrator Sandy Tubbs, Alexandria, MN

Parenting is the toughest and most important job most of us will ever do. It's difficult under the best of circumstances — but when you are a pregnant teen, the challenge of parenting can feel especially overwhelming.

Imagine if we had a tool to help teen mothers and their babies get access to prenatal care, enhance parenting skills and succeed at school. And imagine if it paid for itself over time.

Actually, we don't have to imagine it. Minnesota already has a program that does all of this. It's called family home visiting, and it's a simple and effective service. A nurse or other care provider visits a teen mom at her home and provides parenting coaching, makes referrals to key health and developmental services and helps promote a safe and healthy environment during the pregnancy and through the child's crucial first years of life.

These totally voluntary visits make a huge difference for vulnerable teen parents and their children because our earliest experiences in life have a massive impact on our lifelong health and well-being. Nearly 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first months of life. This means our state and communities receive decades of payoff for a relatively modest investment to ensure that babies and young kids have a healthy start. In fact, research has found a significant return on investment, with every $1 spent on home visiting resulting in later savings of between $2.88 and $5.70.

Minnesota teenagers gave birth to 2,406 babies in 2015. These young families experience higher rates of premature birth, low birthweights, developmental delays, lower high-school graduation rates and increased risk of lifelong poverty that continues for generations. This is a critical time to intervene in both young mothers' and their children's lives, yet many teen moms in Minnesota don't have access to high-quality home visiting services.

Recognizing the power and promise of home visiting services, the public health community is working with Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, on bipartisan legislation to make home visiting available to more pregnant and parenting teens in Minnesota. The bills parallel Governor Mark Dayton's budget proposal to invest $31 million of the state's budget surplus to expand evidence-based home visiting throughout Minnesota. We are hopeful that legislative leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate will recognize and act on this bipartisan opportunity we have to significantly expand home visiting services.

Minnesota has a long history of innovation in human services and health policy. We often show the rest of the country how to get better results from smarter, more strategic investments. Family home visiting is the latest example of Minnesota leading the way. It's a great local solution that strengthens Minnesota families and reduces long-term government spending and time on welfare. It's a bipartisan idea we can all get behind.