Monday, May 20, 2013

Baby bonus. The needless, dangerous birth boom coming soon

"On Wednesday June 30, 2004 a total of 490 births were recorded.

On the next day, the first day of the baby bonus, the number of recorded births jumped to 978."

Treasurer Wayne Swan is being urged to smooth the “sudden death” end of the baby bonus, due to slump from $5000 to $500 on March 1.

When the bonus was first introduced on July 1, 2004 Australian labour wards experienced their busiest Thursday in three decades. A record 1,005 babies were born on July 1, compared to only 500 the day before, which one of the quietest Wednesdays on record.

Melbourne University economist Joshua Gans found the babies born in July 2004 were significantly more likely to be “overcooked”. Around 680 babies were born weighing more than four kilograms in that month, 140 more than in a typical month. His concern this time is that births will be brought forward.

“Frankly, I think this is worse,” he said from Canada where he is now works. “The delay increased birth weights and I recall one study that showed that could be beneficial. But in this case we are likely to suffer from earlier births meaning lower birth weights.”

Asked at the National Press Club on Wednesday whether he was worried mothers might try to bring forward births to get the bonus Treasurer Wayne Swan replied with a four-word answer: “No, I am not”.

Professor Gans and Dr Andrew Leigh of the Australian National University found mothers varied the timing of their births using cesareans and inductions. Only 42 per cent of births in the final week of June 2004 were cesareans or inductions. The rate jumped to 52 per cent the following week.

“The rates of vaginal birth stay basically flat suggesting that this isn't anything to do with misreporting or crossing your legs, this is all to do with these elective procedures being put off,” Dr Leigh said at the time.

“What worries is that this is coming because the government has set up an incentive to change the timing of your birth. It is a very weird thing and not at all something that seems to be in accord with good public policy.”

Dr Leigh is now a Labor member of parliament, presently parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

He told Fairfax Media on Sunday he stood by his findings and was working within the government on the question...

The sudden drop in the baby bonus has not yet been legislated and could be converted to a smoothed phase out without costing money.

Dr Leigh and Professor Gans wrote to the then health minister Nicola Roxon in 2008 urging her to smooth the last planned increase in the bonus. Their pleas were rejected, in part because of “something about the fiscal year,” according to Gans.

“That doesn’t apply this year. No one has ever been able to explain to me why you can't do it more gradually,” he said.

“As I understand it, there are continual political calls for academic research to be more relevant and useful. So we do that research and it is, at best, ignored and, at worst, apparently unwelcome.”

Doctor Andrew Pesce, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital said while expectant mothers did ask to have the date of their deliveries optimised, he had never known one to do it in circumstances where it would endanger the child.

“If the baby has some prematurity problems she is probably going to spend a whole lot more than the baby bonus on special care nursery costs,” he said.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald and Age

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. Baby bonus: even as it exits poor implementation continues

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. 2008: What I was about to ask the Health Minister

. 2008: Tuesday column: Axe the baby bonus