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Group Working to Reduce Infant Mortality in Milwaukee Loses Most of its Funding

F.Schmidt -

The federal government decided not to renew the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin’s $750,000 grant.

No organization enjoys losing funding. But Bevan Baker says the cut is especially upsetting.

“To use the boxing analogy, this is a blow to the gut of infant mortality reduction,” Baker says.

Baker is Milwaukee’s health commissioner. He says the city faces a serious infant mortality problem.

“For every 1,000 infants born in this city, you’re going to have nearly 16 of them -- if they’re African American -- would succumb before their first year of life,” Baker says.

That’s compared to fewer than six for white babies.

Baker says Milwaukee’s black infant mortality rate is one of the highest rates in the country, and it should have been on the federal government’s radar when deciding how to distribute funding.

The loss is huge for the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

“I’m going to lose 8-10 staff. I only had 11 in the first place, so that’s a big hit. This grant was 80 percent of our budget,” says Dr. Patricia McManus, who heads the organization.

It’s been providing one-on-one counseling for hundreds of vulnerable pregnant women each year, helping them live healthy and stable lives, so they give birth to healthy children.

McManus says the group is already cutting services, in anticipation for January, when the grant runs out.

“We’re not taking any more clients. We get calls every day," McManus says. "It’s very hard for me to turn people away. But I didn’t want to take any more if we couldn’t handle it, so we started turning away referrals, and we’re going to have to actually close out clients that we have now."

McManus says the Black Health Coalition will begin applying for other grants. In the meantime, she’s complaining to the state’s congressional delegation about the federal grant-making process. She believes her organization scored high enough to receive funding.

As the Coalition restructures, other groups continue fighting infant mortality here. Lashawndra Vernon is program director of the Milwaukee Lifecourse Collaborative. It’s a relatively new effort that brings together hospitals, faith groups and other organizations, to address the multiple factors that contribute to infant mortality.

“From community violence issues to concerns about safety, food and healthy eating choices here in the city, and then just looking at ways to engage people who weren’t engaged before -- a very important factor is our relationships with the fathers,” Vernon says.

City health commissioner Baker says everyone should be concerned about the issue.

“When you look at infant mortality rates, that’s the one barometer that’s universal in determining how healthy a city, a state, or even a nation is,” Baker says.

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