Testing newborns for 'bubble boy' disease could save money

SEATTLE - A new test expected to be added to the state's standard newborn screening could protect infant lives and save taxpayers money.

The Washington State Board of Health will discuss adding a test for Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID), commonly known as the "boy in the bubble" disease, to all newborn screenings at a public hearing Wednesday.

SCID is a group of inherited disorders that cause severe abnormalities of the immune system. For children who suffer from this disease, common childhood infections - such as ear infections - can become chronic, complicated and life-threatening. But with a stem cell transplant, people with SCID can lead normal lives. If it's undetected and untreated, SCID typically leads to death before a baby's first birthday.

The federal government recommended in 2010 all states add SCID to newborn screening tests. Mike Glass, director of newborn screenings, said at least 15 states have implemented the screening with many more following.

Adding SCID to newborn screenings will add about $8 per infant to the current cost of a newborn screening, but DOH has determined the screening will actually save families money. The screenings are typically reimbursed by private insurance or - for more than half the state's babies - by Medicaid. For those on Medicaid that adds up to $170,000 per year for Washington taxpayers.

So how does the screening save taxpayers money? The state estimates screening for SCID will lead to the discovery of around two babies each year with the disorder. If the disease is not found early, each child typically costs millions of dollars to treat.

DOH analysis estimates every dollar the state spends on screening will generate more than $4 of benefit for taxpayers.

Glass said that estimate is conservative, and the actual savings are likely even greater. He said each year of SCID screening will likely lead to discovering six or seven other babies with other primary immune deficiencies that can be treated.

"We're going to be saving lives and saving families misery," he said. "There's a lot of bang for that buck."

If the Board of Health approves the screening, Glass said infants will be tested for SCID as soon as Jan. 1.

Glass is so confident the proposal will be approved that he's already ordered testing equipment.

"Unless something unforeseeable goes wrong, we'll be testing all the kids very soon," he said. "I have no reason to believe we won't be able to make that happen."