(NEWPORT, OR) When the Oregon Legislature passed a law in June 2019 mandating the launch of a statewide home visiting program for families with infants, Shelley Paeth got excited. As program manager of Lincoln County’s Maternal Child Health program, Paeth had brought Family Connects, the program that inspired the law, to local parents back in 2018. At that time, Lincoln County was the first in Oregon to offer the service.
“We do a lot of home visiting here and we were looking at that time for something that was evidenced-based to support families beyond first-time moms,” she explained.
Paeth read an article in a nursing magazine about research coming out of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. That is where Family Connects International was born.
“They had finished their research and had proven the success that comes from providing intensive visits to assess mom, assess the baby, and provide referrals to community services,” the nurse said. When Paeth and her team began training on the Family Connects approach back in 2017, they had no idea it would become Oregon law two years later.
Nobody is happier about that foresight than Toledo’s Mackenzie Herrera. Herrera and her husband, Parker, welcomed Kaeden Ryan to the world on Jan. 25, 2021. It was Mackenzie’s second child and a much different experience than her first time around.
“My oldest just turned five and I haven’t dealt with a baby in a while,” she explained. “I feel like I’m a new mom again and I have two children now, instead of one, and I wasn’t sure how to accept help from a partner who wants to help me.”
Although COVID-19 protocols meant that Herrera didn’t receive an in-person visit, she received a series of phone calls that she refers to as “more or less lifesaving” from Heidi Harrington, RN.
“When Mackenzie and I began, she was open to having additional support however she did not pinpoint any specific areas of concern and none were apparent to me,” the nurse recalled. “Subsequent visits unearthed some issues, which is common. An initial Family Connects visit provides a framework to cover a multitude of topics which can bring forth issues on day one, but it doesn’t always work like that.”
Although the Oregon law was passed in 2019, the unwelcome arrival of COVID-19 on the health scene delayed the implementation for many areas. As an early adopter, Lincoln County was well-situated for implementation, but that doesn’t mean the law has no impact locally.
“This is now a population-based program. Previously we were able to bill OHP (Oregon Health Program) for our home visiting services, but we’ve never been able to bill commercial insurances. The Senate bill that was passed requires commercial insurance to begin to pay for this service,” Paeth explained. “They should be paying for it because we’ve been providing the service since 2018 and they have paid nothing, but they have reaped the benefits.”
Duke University calculates that for every dollar spent on Family Connects, the benefit is worth three dollars in reduced trips to the emergency room and other follow-up care. The program is both voluntary and free to participating families.
At home with baby Kaeden, Herrera found other kinds of benefits from the program. After talking to the nurse about some stress and anxiety, she began some therapy sessions with a social worker. When her older child demonstrated some worrisome behaviors after baby brother came into the picture, she received help from the Parents As Teacher program.
“They don’t talk to me as if I’m a patient,” Herrera emphasized. “They talk to me like I’m family and that’s been the best experience. They actually take an interest and make me feel extremely comfortable.”
Connecting families to resources is one part of the overall service. Checking in on the health of both baby and mother can also be a life-changing affair.
“We have absolutely saved women’s lives,” Paeth says passionately, telling the story of a patient discovered to have disastrous blood pressure issues. “That woman is alive because of a home visit. We also have had babies who have been abused and we have saved the lives of babies,” she noted.
With the support of Samaritan hospitals in Lincoln County, every woman who gives birth learns of Family Connects while she is still in the hospital. If the family is interested, they typically can have anywhere from one to four visits.
With COVID-19 demands beginning to ease on healthcare workers, implementation of Family Connects is expected to widen across Oregon and Lincoln County is an “early adopter” providing feedback and education to others around the state. Working as a three-county cohort with Linn and Benton counties gives Paeth and her team even more insight into how to make home nurse visits even more impactful.
Asked what she would say to other new moms about the program, Herrera urges them to “keep an open mind. I didn’t know what to expect in the beginning, but after the first conversation, I thought ‘wow – this is very informative’ and they flat out told me they will do whatever they can to help me.”
To sign up for Family Connects, call 541-265-0457.
— By Angela Nebel, Newport