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Public hospitals are boarding thousands of unwanted babies each year at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the nation's health care system, a children's advocacy group says.

A survey of 72 hospitals in 12 urban areas this spring found more than 600 babies are left in hospitals monthly. Although many have been diagnosed as having disabilities or health problems, the infants don't need the constant medical attention of a hospital.

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The survey was conducted by the Child Welfare League of America in conjunction with the National Association of Public Hospitals because no national statistics were available.

The study, released Tuesday, found that 85 percent of the babies were prenatally exposed to alcohol, cocaine or other drugs, and a few were infected with the AIDS virus. Some had been in the hospitals more than three months.

Only 21 percent of the boarder babies were expected to be reunited with birth parents, while 79 percent would go to relatives or foster care or be adopted out of the hospital.

"Based on this data, we estimate that these 72 urban safety-net hospitals will board 6,500 to 7,000 babies this year, at a total unreimbursed cost of nearly $30 million to $35 million," said Larry Gage, president of the National Association of Public Hospitals.

David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League, said the boarder baby problem stems from too many unemployed parents turning to drugs and alcohol.

Mr. Liederman blamed the federal war on drugs for concentrating on punishment rather than treatment.

Mr. Gage said each boarder baby costs its hospital $600 to $800 a day on average, covered neither by Medicaid nor any other health insurer.

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Congress is considering legislation that would authorize about $3.5 billion for child welfare services over five years.

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